Romancing the River We’ve Created: “Real hydrology has to dominate distribution” — George Sibley (Sibley’s Rivers) #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):

The graph above may look familiar; I used it in a post last summer (June 27, ‘Beyond 2026’). It illuminates a study by three ‘Colorado River elders’: hydrologist Jack Schmidt, retired river manager Eric Kuhn, and USGS scientist Charles Yackulic. 

I personally think that every meeting convened on Colorado River issues should have this graph projected on the wall until we all grow to accept it as the reality of our past, present and future situations. Certainly it should be illuminating the meetings currently in process, as representatives of the seven Colorado River Basin states, and its 30 First People tribes, sit down to figure out how to ‘reoperate’ the river after the current ‘Interim Guidelines’ expire (guidelines now modified twice, with increasing urgency) in 2026.

The graph is a record of the flow volumes of the river over the past century-plus, from 1906 to 2022. The flyspecks all over the graph are the annual flows – illustrating a fundamental problem for river planning: the flows are literally all over the map, enabling those motivated more by politics than science to find evidence for any desired perception of bounty or paucity. The wavy black line is their ‘smoothing curve based on the locally weighted least squared error method for the nearest 15% of the data set’ – essentially an effort to sort a pattern out of the seemingly random behavior of the river. What the black line shows is a fairly clear downward trend in the averaged flows – but with upward loops that might inspire hope in anyone grasping for hope.

The brilliance of their study, though, lies in the three straight lines stepping down on the graph. They have broken the recent 117 years of flows – basically the period of our heavy involvement with the River – into three periods, divided around two extended dry spells:

  • The blue line shows the average of the river volumes from 1906 to 1929, since discovered through tree-ring studies to have been the wettest period in the river’s natural history going back many centuries. This ‘pluvial’ (very wet period) coincided with what I would call the early dawn of the Anthropocene Epoch, when we humans were beginning to really develop our technical abilities to fundamentally change the geological and ecological ‘nature’ of the planet, to better meet the needs of our swarming species. The Colorado River Compact was created in the middle of this first period; the seven states who divided the river in order to conquer it believed they were working with a river whose roughly measured annual flows averaged just under 18 million acre-feet (maf). Call it the Pluvial Period of our Colorado River. (I say ‘our Colorado River,’ the river which Euro-American civilization claimed as it own to do with as we will – as opposed to the Colorado River on which our river is an ephemeral, maybe one millennium, maybe less, overlay.)
  • The green line represents the average of flows for the period from a 1930s ‘wake-up’ dry spell to the end of the century – and the dry spell that began in 2001. The ‘smoothing curve’ shows that, for that 70-year period, the river only came close to the pluvial-period average briefly in the 1980s. The average flow for whole 70-year period was 14.3 maf, 20 percent below the pluvial average. The early 1930s saw the construction of Hoover Dam, and by the end of that period our river was fully developed, all the major structures in place for our various human uses, ranging from irrigation water for four or five million acres of desert land, to domestic water for 35-40 million people, to whitewater in the canyons affording the industrialized recreational opportunity to go risk your life. These changes have also been accompanied by unanticipated and unwanted collateral changes, worst of which are the climatic consequences of the substances that fueled all of our impressive development. Call this the Early Anthropocene Period of our Colorado River.
  • The red line represents the average of the river’s volume of flow since the dry spell at the turn of the century – 12.5 maf, 14 percent below the average flow of the Early period, and 30 percent below the average flow of the  ‘Pluvial River.’ This period – like the pluvial period – is a short period in the scale of even human time, let alone geological time, but most scientists says it is probably the shape of the future we’ve shaped for ourselves; the red line is much more likely to gradually slope down than go back up, as we continue to pump carbon gases into the atmosphere. Call this the Woke Anthropocene Period – with a flip of the bird for those who wish to remain ‘unwoke’ about the situations we must try to address.
Eugene Clyde LaRue measuring the flow in Nankoweap Creek, 1923. Photo credit: USGS via Environment360

So – today we are working with a river that is roughly only about two-thirds the size of the river a century ago, when we began making plans for controlling and using the river. This being the case – is it unrealistic to suggest that maybe we should start from scratch with this new river we’ve created? Work out a new reality-based post-2026 management plan for our Woke Anthropocene River (the red line on the chart)?

I realize that probably sounds like I’m suggesting we throw out the revered Colorado River Compact, or at least do radical surgery on it. Well, yes, I am suggesting that. I am aware that numerous Colorado River water mavens have said that this is simply impossible, out of the question, but I’m going to argue that it is impossible not to at least seriously dig into it and make some major changes, for a number of very prescient reasons.

The first and most obvious reason is the fact that we have known since the drought of the 1930s and the anemic flows of the 1940s that the 17.9 maf Pluvial River for which the Compact was written was gone, which negated the ‘equitable division and apportionment’ specified in the Compact. When representatives from the four states of the Compact’s Upper Basin gathered in 1948 to create an Upper Colorado River Compact, they knew already that there might only occasionally be 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water per year for them, especially since the State Department had given Mexico 1.5 maf/year in 1944, on top of the 7.5 maf the existing Compact said the Upper Basin had to deliver on average to the Lower Basin.

So instead of apportioning 7.5 maf among themselves, they created percentages of whatever was left in the river after fulfilling the Compact and Mexican obligations: 51.75 percent for Colorado, 11.25 percent for New Mexico, 23 percent for Utah, and 14 percent for Wyoming. But X percent of what? That was a problem; estimates dropped from around 6 maf immediately after WWII to around 4 maf today, even as Upper Basin use was increasing. Nonetheless, that division into percentages of what’s actually there in the river, over a five or ten year rolling average, makes more sense than firm numbers devoid of real context.

Another serious flaw in the Compact is its failure to take into account system losses – evaporation, bank seepage, et cetera. For the free-flowing Pluvial River, when the Compact was created, these were relatively minor – maybe 5-8 percent or so of the flow. But as the reservoirs and long canals were added, the system losses increased to around 12-13 percent for the Early Anthropocene River (green line on the graph). And now in the warmer and drier Woke Anthropocene Period, system losses are closer to 16 percent of the total flow, maybe more. It’s hard to get good numbers for this because the science of measuring it, especially sublimation and transpiration, is still fairly primitive.

Being committed to deliver defined quantities to the Lower Basin and Mexico, the Upper Basin states absorb their system losses as part of their ‘whatever is left’ portion of the river’s water, but the Lower Basin states have never deducted from their 7.5 maf share the system losses from their several reservoirs (including the huge Mead Reservoir) and hundreds of miles of open canals. They have written it off as covered by ‘surplus flows’: Upper Basin water that made it past Lee Ferry or, since the 1960s, into Powell Reservoir, which the ever-accommodating Bureau continues to pass along as ‘surplus.’ This included roughly 10 million acre-feet of water since 2000 that the Upper Basin has no storage for above Powell (effectively Lower Basin storage), but that ‘surplus’ only made up about half of the Lower Basin’s system losses for the Woke period; the rest was drained from reservoir storage, creating most of the shortages in the 2020s. Real hydrology has to dominate distribution. [ed. emphasis mine]

Topographic map of the US. Credit: Epic Maps

Another Compact problem: The division of the Colorado River into two basins – hailed as a stroke of genius in the 1920s – was not a smart thing to do with a desert river. A desert river only exists because of a ‘water producing’ upland high enough to cool and condense precipitation from air forced up its slopes. At least 85 percent of the water in the Colorado River comes from snow and rain in the 10 percent of the natural basin above 8,000 feet elevation – a boundary that bears no relation to the geographically and ecologically irrelevant state boundaries that are the basis for the Compact division.

A desert river divides naturally into a ‘water producing’ region and a ‘water using’ region. Would it not make a great deal of sense for all of those in the water-using portion of the desert river to be directly involved in – and invested in – the care and keeping of the water-producing portion of the river?

But that is unthinkable under the Compact, which is based on those geographically irrelevant state boundaries, creating two geographically clumsy state-based ‘basins’ that are pitted against each other, the upper one mandated to pass a set amount of water to the other regardless of the climatic vagaries imposed on their mutual headwaters, conceivably having to eventually sacrifice some of its own uses of the waters to deliver the set quantities.

The state-based two-basin division was just a field-expedient solution to the problem that really drove the Compact Commissioners: how to persuade Congress that there was enough agreement among the seven states on the use of the river’s water to allow Congress to go ahead and fund the creation of a big control and storage dam on the mainstem. But the expedient solution has resulted mostly in a worsening antipathy between the state-based basin that includes both the river’s water-producing region and quite a bit of its water-using region, and the state-based basin that consumes most of the produced water and produces comparatively little.

Map of the Gunnison River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using public domain USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

An example of what this means can be seen in the recent ‘forest planning’ process for the Grand Mesa, Uncompaghre and Gunnison National Forests. These three National Forests are mostly above 8,000 feet in the Gunnison River Basin where 15 to 20 percent of the Colorado River’s water is produced. The forests shade and shelter the winter snowpack from sun and wind, but also cause the sublimation of an undetermined part of it through branch interception, and [then] drinking heavily from the water as the snowpack melts; there are probably a host of other more subtle and complex interactions affecting water production.

But the draft forest plan issued last summer did not even mention the Colorado River by name, let alone its water needs. Concerns expressed by probably more people than just me resulted in a couple paragraphs in the revised final draft plan about the river and its climate-related troubles, but there is still no sense that the plan requires forest managers to be as actively concerned about their organic charge to ‘secure favorable flows of water’ as they traditionally are about the companion charge to provide a dependable supply of timber. And which is more important for the Colorado River Basin: timber production (small and scraggly compared to the northern Rockies) or water production?

Yet an admittedly quick search of the hundreds of comments on the first draft and the objections to the final draft show no comments about this omission from any of the big water users downriver from the forests. And the Compact does not encourage what would be construed as interbasin meddling. We need to be one river.

Native America in the Colorado River Basin. Credit: USBR

A final reason why the Colorado River Compact should probably be scrapped and a new one created is the fact that the 30 First People nations overlaid on the seven states will no longer be covered (literally) and dismissed with a single sentence; they will be part of the new management regimen, and this alone mitigates for starting over. They have popular support that the representatives of the Great Father in Washington no longer enjoy, and will either be, in the immortal words of Lyndon Johnson, in the tent, or out of the tent pissing in.

In fact, a place to start the whole process of planning for the new Woke Anthropocene River might be for everyone involved to look at a document called ‘A Common Vision for the Colorado River System: Toward a Framework for Sustainability.’ This comes from a ‘Ten Tribes Partnership’ of desert First Peoples, most of whom have gone through, or are still going through, the ‘settlement’ process of negotiating for some portion of the water that should have been theirs since the creation of their reservations (see my last post). Its authors understand the patience, and the willingness to give a little (or a lot) to get a little, that will have to be present as we all figure out what to do beyond 2026 with a shrinking river. Many will find their vision statement naive, but at least they have an articulated and somewhat unified vision, which can hardly be said for the Compact states, where each state just wants, as one water leader said for Colorado, ‘for our state to come out stronger.’ Stronger than what, or whom, and how?

Tribes gain clout as #ColoradoRiver shrinks — Water Education Foundation #COriver #aridification

The Central Arizona Project canal cuts through Phoenix. Arizona has made deals with the Gila River Indian Community to leave some of the tribe’s Colorado River water in the canal for urban use. Photo by Ted Wood/ Water Desk The climate-driven shrinking of the Colorado River is expanding the influence of Native American tribes over how the river’s flows are divided among cities, farms and reservations across the Southwest. The tribes are seeing the value of their largely unused river water entitlements rise as the Colorado dwindles, and they are gaining seats they’ve never had at the water bargaining table as government agencies try to redress a legacy of exclusion. Photo credit: Ted Wood/The Water Desk

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Foundation website (Nick Cahill):

Western Water in-depth: Tribes hold key state-appointed posts for first time as their water rises in value

The climate-driven shrinking of the Colorado River is expanding the influence of Native American tribes over how the river’s flows are divided among cities, farms and reservations across the Southwest.

The tribes are seeing the value of their largely unused river water entitlements rise as the Colorado dwindles, and they are gaining seats they’ve never had at the water bargaining table as government agencies try to redress a legacy of exclusion.

The power shift comes as the federal government and seven states negotiate the next set of rules governing the river that flows to nearly 40 million people and irrigates more than 4 million acres of farmland.

The tribes stand to hold outsized sway in those discussions. Altogether, they hold rights to more water than some of the states in the Colorado River Basin, which stretches from Wyoming to Mexico. Tribes such as the Navajo Nation, Gila River Indian Community and Jicarilla Apache Nation also hold some of the most senior rights to the water, giving them first dibs on the precious flows before cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles.

But most tribes haven’t been using their full allotment because they lack the infrastructure to put their water to use or because their water rights remain unsettled.

Large volumes of water meant for the tribes flow downstream and are captured, stored and used by cities and farms that have far more developed networks of canals, pumps, reservoirs and water treatment plants. The water not used by tribes has helped to slow the decline of major reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead and spur growth in the arid Southwest.

Now, tribes are poised to use more of their water, straining an already oversubscribed river system that has been pushed to its limit by more than 20 years of sustained drought.

While some water users in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico are facing a third straight year of water cuts, tribes with ironclad water rights are reaping record amounts of federal infrastructure funding under the Biden administration.

“Downstream users have built a reliance on tribes and their unused or unsettled water,” said Lorelei Cloud, vice chair of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in southwest Colorado. “But our tribe plans to fully develop our water to support our economic development and the resiliency of our people.”

Lorelei Cloud, member of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s tribal council. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

Once an afterthought, Basin tribes are gaining recognition and bargaining power. In the past five years, the tribes have seen significant advances:

  • Thirsty water users in states like Arizona and New Mexico are leasing water from tribes or paying them to leave water in the system.
  • The federal government began engaging directly with tribes alongside state representatives on the river’s future operating rules.
  • Some Basin states for the first time appointed tribal leaders to important negotiating posts.

“Tribes are very cognizant that [their unused water] is being used by others,” said Anne Castle, the federal appointee to the Upper Colorado River Commission and former assistant Interior Department secretary for water and science. “Political will has been shifting toward greater recognition of the need to address these inequities and to ensure that tribal rights and interests are protected in these ongoing discussions that are going to result in changes to the way the Colorado River operates.”

A Major Power Shift

For over a century, compacts, treaties, laws and drought plans were hatched among the federal government, Mexico and the seven Western states that use the river: Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California.

Missing from the decision-making tables were Basin tribes that hold rights to nearly a quarter of the river’s water.

In recent years, however, tribes have increasingly inserted themselves into broad discussions over the river’s management through a series of groundbreaking studies and water-sharing deals with Basin states.

The power shift can be traced back to at least 2018 when the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation and a tribal consortium known as the Ten Tribes Partnership issued a study that for the first time tried to quantify the Basin tribes’ current and likely future water uses.

Native America in the Colorado River Basin. Credit: USBR

A 2021 update by the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado Boulder, found that tribes hold rights to 3.2 million-acre feet or approximately 22 to 26 percent of the Basin’s average annual water supply. It also estimated the yet-to-be-settled amount of tribal water claims at 400,000 acre-feet. That’s more than the entire state of Nevada is allotted in a year.

The quantification made the enormity of the tribes’ water shares explicit and strengthened their bargaining power as the Lower Basin states and federal government were scrambling to devise a new system of water cuts. Guidelines for operating Lake Powell and Lake Mead were proving insufficient and the Basin states were locked in tense negotiations over new drought rules.

Discussions were particularly thorny for Arizona because, unlike California and Nevada, much of its allotted river water is reserved for tribes with land in the state. Under pressure to take significant water cuts, the state pitched a proposal that the Gila River Indian Community said could reduce the amount of water set aside for the tribe.

After the tribe threatened to sue, Arizona negotiated a deal to pay the tribe $60 million in exchange for 500,000 acre-feet of water through 2026. The state also paid the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) to leave some of its water in Lake Mead.

Jason Hauter

“The Gila River Indian Community really forced itself into that [negotiation] process,” said Jason Hauter, a water attorney and tribal member. “It ended up taking a leadership role because it had the most water at stake.”

The 2019 deal marked a turning point: The federal government and states have since routinely offered to pay tribes to conserve water and sought their advice on the shrinking river’s future.

In 2021, the Gila River Indian Community and CRIT agreed to preserve up to 179,000 acre-feet of water under the deal known as the 500+ Plan, a move that cushioned the blow of water cuts to urban and agricultural users in central Arizona.

Earlier this year, the Gila River Indian Community agreed to conserve up to 40 percent of its river allocation each year through 2025 in exchange for up to $150 million from the federal government. It also received money for a new pipeline to deliver recycled wastewater across the reservation for irrigation, which will further reduce its reliance on Colorado River water.

“Time and again, the Gila River Indian Community has demonstrated its deep commitment to strengthening our water future in the face of historic drought,” Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema said in a statement.

An innovative deal is also underway in the Upper Basin, as the Jicarilla Apache Nation is leasing nearly half of its annual river share to bolster New Mexico’s water supply and increase San Juan River flows to benefit endangered fish. Previously, the tribe leased the water supply to coal-fired power plants that are now facing closure.

Celene Hawkins, who heads The Nature Conservancy’s engagement with Basin tribes, said the Jicarilla-New Mexico deal could serve as a model for other multi-benefit water deals in the Upper Basin. The conservancy helped the two sovereign governments negotiate and implement the 10-year program, which released its first batch of water in June to support endangered Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker populations.

“It was the first time that we have seen an Upper Basin tribal nation and a state work together in this way,” said Hawkins, who advises the Water and Tribes Initiative, a group dedicated to enhancing tribal water resources. “Water leasing is a super-critical tool in the bigger toolbox that we’re going to need to handle the drought and water stress that’s hitting the Basin.”

Gaining Seats at the Table

It remains an uphill fight, but tribal nations are starting to gain ownership in the management of the Colorado River. Tribal members now hold a variety of positions at key agencies that decide river policy and for the first time are included in Basin-wide planning sessions.

“Attitudes have changed as we have progressed as a society, so generally there is more inclusion,” Hauter said.

Last year, Utah designated a tribal seat on its Colorado River negotiating board. The inaugural appointee, Paul Tsosie, an attorney and a member of the Navajo Nation, previously served as the Interior Department’s Indian Affairs head of staff.

This year, Colorado appointed Cloud of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe as the first tribal member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. And last March, California appointed Jordan Joaquin, president of the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe, to its Colorado River board.

Paul Tsosie. Photo credit: Water Education Foundation

The federal government is also doing more to court tribal perspectives under Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation this past summer held a pair of brainstorming sessions open to all Basin tribes and states. Some participants cast the meetings as “groundbreaking” and an important show of transparency from the federal government.

“They were historical meetings,” said Crystal Tulley-Cordova, principal hydrologist with the Navajo Nation. “Tribes had the opportunity to be able to engage in ways that haven’t occurred before.”

Reclamation officials say the meetings will continue as Basin water users negotiate a replacement for Colorado River operating guidelines that expire at the end of 2026.

Hauter, the Gila River Indian Community member and Water and Tribes Initiative advisor, said tribes historically have found out about new water policies after they became final. He said Reclamation’s “Federal-Tribal-State” meetings will give tribes insight into what the governments are considering and a rare chance to present their own solutions for the over-tapped river system.

The top negotiators for California, Nevada and Arizona echoed Hauter’s point, saying they look forward to continued collaboration with Basin tribes.

“Successful management of the Colorado River will depend on the support and participation of the tribes,” they wrote in a recent letter to Reclamation.

Reclamation officials declined to be interviewed for this story but issued a statement saying the federal government “continues to value the input of the tribes and stakeholders … and will continue to host meetings with this group throughout the post-2026 process.” The agency anticipates publishing a draft of its long-term river management strategies by the end of 2024, with a final plan approved in early 2026.

Drought Forces Change

Basin states and the federal government are paying more attention than ever to tribal water use. Federal tribal reserved water rights were recognized in the 1908 landmark Winters v. United States decision, in which the Supreme Court held that when the government established reservations for tribes it implicitly reserved water rights for them.

A canal delivers Colorado River water to the Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix. Photo by Ted Wood/Water Desk

Resolved tribal water claims are included in the Colorado River allocations for the states in which reservations are located. For example, the Gila River Indian Community’s 653,500 acre-feet comes out of Arizona’s annual river share.

The effects of climate change – longer, more severe droughts, more extreme hot spells and more variable precipitation – are placing a premium on tribal water. The annual amount of reserved water is often more than some tribes can use. Tribes are rarely paid for what they can’t or don’t use. Their unused reserves stay in the river system, enriching users downstream.

Over the past two decades, dry conditions have cut flows from the Colorado River’s main tributaries, but water use across the Basin hasn’t dropped equally. The unused tribal water helped keep a stable supply for some of the river’s largest users. The cushion, however, is vanishing as demand outstrips supply: Average flows in the Upper Basin have already dropped 20 percentover the past century and increased tribal water use seems inevitable.

Meanwhile, water cuts have become a reality in Mexico and the Lower Basin states.

Reclamation declared water shortages on the river for the first time in 2022 and again in 2023. Though much of the Basin recorded above-average snowfall last winter, the agency said cuts will continue next year for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. With talks beginning on new river operating rules, there’s growing agreement among federal and state negotiators that an even more rigorous system of cuts needs to be implemented.

Castle, who chairs the interstate commission representing Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico, said Basin states are more concerned about the possibility of tribes maximizing their supply than they were in 2007 when the current set of guidelines was adopted.

“There’s a significant chunk of water that the tribes control that is not yet used and is a potential addition to the problem,” Castle said. “So, trying to get ahead of that problematic situation is part of the motivation.”

The 2018 Tribal Water Study estimated the Upper Basin tribes were using 670,000 acre-feet a year, or just 37 percent of their total reserved and settled rights. Castle said the commission is vetting those numbers with tribes and states to get a clear picture of how much more water tribes might develop in the coming years.

Infrastructure Problems Linger

For tribes, putting their Colorado River water to beneficial use remains a difficult proposition.

Those who have gone through the arduous process of settling and quantifying their water claims often lack the infrastructure for diverting water to farms, businesses and homes on rural reservations. Moreover, a range of laws and bureaucratic hurdles restrict how and where a tribe can use its water.

Much of the irrigation infrastructure and technology on the Southern Ute Reservation in Colorado is antiquated. The channel on the right looks much as it did in the 1950s photo on the left. Source: Tribal Water Study Basic projects, like expanding a water treatment plant or installing a new drinking water pipeline, can advance at a glacial pace, as tribes must deal with a variety of different federal agencies to get them approved. Even when funding is available, it can be difficult to launch projects as tribes often lack the resources to navigate the various regulations, fees and environmental reviews. Credit: Water Education Foundation

Basic projects, like expanding a water treatment plant or installing a new drinking water pipeline, can advance at a glacial pace, as tribes must deal with a variety of different federal agencies to get them approved. Even when funding is available, it can be difficult to launch projects as tribes often lack the resources to navigate the various regulations, fees and environmental reviews.

Lack of safe drinking water also continues to be a glaring public health issue. Nearly half of Native American households don’t have clean drinking water or basic sanitation, according to a study by the nonprofit Colorado River Basin Water & Tribes Initiative.

On the Navajo Nation reservation, which stretches across more than 17 million acres in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, approximately 30 percent of families live without tap water and rely on bottled or hauled supplies.

Cloud, who serves on the leadership team for the Water & Tribes Initiative, said her Southern Ute Indian Tribe uses only a quarter of its reserved water because of shoddy infrastructure. Most of the tribe’s farmers rely on a federally built system more than a century old with broken diversion structures, leaky canals and clogged ditches.

“The federal government says they don’t have the funding to fix their own infrastructure,” Cloud said. “We can’t use the water if the infrastructure is failing.”

The underutilized water supply gets chalked up as a missed economic opportunity. A North Carolina State University study this year found Western tribes collectively lose hundreds of millions of dollars each year due to their unused water.

Some of the Ute Indian Tribe’s irrigation system is in poor condition, as shown here on the Uintah Canal east of Salt Lake City. Source: Tribal Water Study

Outstanding tribal water rights claims continue to complicate matters. Nearly a dozen of the 30 federally recognized tribes in the Basin have at least partially unsettled claims.

To tap into its reserved water, each tribe must negotiate with the state or states where it has land to quantify the size of its share. This process averages 22 years and can cost tribes millions of dollars in legal and consulting fees. There is an additional layer of federal oversight, as Congress must sign off on deals made between states and tribes.

Expediting the outstanding claims, most of which are in Arizona, is in the best interest of Basin water users as talks intensify over a new set of river guidelines, Castle said.

“It’s a burden on everybody to have this unquantified amount hanging out there,” she said.

Tribes as Part of the Solution

Tribal leaders and experts say being involved in the crafting of the next set of river management rules could benefit Basin tribes in a variety of ways, including compensation for their unused water.

Hauter, of the Gila River Indian Community, said one potential solution would involve paying tribes to not develop or increase their water use for a set period. These “forbearance” deals would suspend a portion of a tribe’s allotment and continue to allow non-tribal users to use the water.

The Gila River, a major tributary of the Colorado River, flows through the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, east of Safford, Arizona. Photo by Ted Wood/Water Desk

Joaquin, president of the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe in California, said forbearance deals like the one the tribe negotiated with California water agencies in 2005, generate income for tribes for badly needed drinking water infrastructure and reduce the risk of new draws on the river.

“This is an opportunity that should not be squandered,” Joaquin said in a recent letter to Reclamation officials.

Additional support for tribal water infrastructure may also be on the horizon. By being in the same meeting rooms, tribal leaders will be able to convey the scope of their drinking water problems to the federal government and states’ top negotiators.

“It’s a straight-up issue of equity for American citizens,” Castle said.

While the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided a “groundbreaking” amount of money for fixing and building new drinking water systems, Castle said tribes need additional assistance getting their projects shovel-ready. More money would help tribes with the design, engineering, permitting and other pre-construction stages.

With the demand for tribal water increasing across the Basin, tribes could press to level the playing field when it comes to profiting from their unused water.

Federal laws enacted more than a century ago, decades before any Southwest state was established, effectively bar tribes from sending water off their reservations. Marketing water to non-tribal users requires congressional approval, a difficult task to achieve for even the most well-resourced, politically connected tribe.

CRIT got the nod from Congress earlier this year to market some of its allotted Colorado River supply off-reservation. It plans to use the revenue to make its water delivery systems more efficient.

Streamlining the process would allow tribes to find new ways to share their water with farmers or cities.

The states and the federal government could also find new ways to support investment in tribal lands. Peter Culp, an attorney specializing in Western water law and policy, said tribes often do not have the means to undertake projects that could help reduce erosion, water pollution and wildfire risks.

“We need to think more broadly to solve the problem we face,” Culp said. “We’re not going to address the declining [water supply] without thinking about the significant investments that need to be made in tribal lands.”

Tribes entering the negotiations want the federal government and the states to give serious consideration to their visions for managing a shrinking river they have relied on for time immemorial.

“[Drought] is opening the eyes of people whose thoughts have been very restrictive of tribal water and haven’t wanted tribes at the table,” Cloud said. “This is an opportunity for us to be part of the solution.”

Reach writer Nick Cahill at

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Map of the Colorado River drainage basin, created using USGS data. By Shannon1 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

Waltons commit $1.4 million to new Tribal Water Institute — @BigPivots #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Water feature in Castle Rock. Photo credit: Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website:

November 15, 2023

Institute to be part of the Boulder-based Native American Rights Fund and likely will play a major role in the Colorado River Basin discussions

The Walton Family Foundation has committed $1.4 million during the next three years to create a Tribal Water Institute. The institute is to provide tribal nations the resources and training to advocate for their water rights and develop policy solutions.

It will be housed within the Boulder-based Native American Rights Fund, or NARF. The organization was established in 1970 and has provided legal assistance to Native American tribes, organizations, and individuals nationwide who might otherwise have gone without adequate representation.

This money for the Tribal Water Institute will double the Native American Rights Fund’s staffing devoted to water issues, allowing it to take on more casework. The goal is also to build a pipeline of new leaders and develop research and forward-thinking policy proposals.

“Addressing the West’s significant water challenges requires an all-hands on deck approach. Tribal Nations must be included in water decision-making,” said Moira Mcdonald, environment program director of the Walton Family Foundation.

“Tribal Nations often have the most senior water rights in the Colorado River Basin and throughout the West. But they are under-represented in federal and state policy discussions. That is unjust and unwise. We need to listen to their voices. More inclusive decision-making will lead to greater benefits for the environment and society as a whole.”

David Gover, managing attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, said the new institute will help fill a critical gap.

“It will provide legal support, train water attorneys, develop policy ideas, and educate state and federal decision-makers,” he said. “By increasing law and policy expertise within Tribal Nations, we can help Indian Country ensure water is available for generations to come.”

The Native American Rights Fund declares that its mission is to hold governments accountable. We fight to protect Native American rights, resources, and lifeways through litigation, legal advocacy, and legal expertise.

Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado Law School, welcomed the announcement.

“Tribal water rights and related interests are getting increased and much needed attention in the western U.S. and the Colorado River Basin in particular,” she observed. “It will be wonderful to have additional expert legal minds addressing these important issues with the practical and thoughtful experience NARF brings to bear.”

Castle was assistant secretary for water and science in the U.S. Department of Interior during the Obama administration.

The Walton Family Foundation, at its core, consists of three generations of descendants of the founders, Sam and Helen Walton, and their spouses. The foundation works in three areas, including protecting rivers and oceans. The foundation has become an important source of funding for many of the players in the Colorado River Basin during recent years. Many a conference has been underwritten, at least in part, by the Waltons. See more here.

As for how this new investment will be used, NARF identified five ways:

  • A fellowship program to train young attorneys to represent and advocate for tribal water law solutions.
  • Advocacy for tribal water rights. “To our knowledge, there is no national tribal organization or academic institution that focuses on tribal water rights or policy development,” says NARF. “The institute will help fill this gap and provide much-needed recommendations and other legal resources to guide tribal water policy.”
  • A semi-annual report detailing water-related legal information and opportunities. Included will be such details as case summaries, pending legislation, successful settlements, and related commentary.
  • Support for participation in the Ad Hoc Water Group; the group has been operated since 1981 by the Western States Water Council and NARF.
  • Continuation of a biennial Indian water settlement symposium that has been held since 1991.

See more about the plans here.

Native America in the Colorado River Basin. Credit: USBR

Colorado River crisis averted? — Jonathan P. Thompson (@Land_Desk) #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead’s stark bathtub ring. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan P. Thompson):

Maybe by now you’ve heard that the collective users of the Colorado River have come together in harmony and agreed to cut water consumption significantly to avoid further depletion of Lakes Powell and Mead. Well it’s true! And the feds even seem ready to sign onto the plan. Maybe you’ve also heard this means the crisis is over and we can all relax and go home now. 

I don’t think so. 

A refresher: The 1922 Colorado River Compact divvied up the river between the Upper and Lower Basin states (Mexico was added later). They assumed at least 16.5 million acre-feet ran down the river each year, when in fact it was more like 14 million acre-feet. This discrepancy became clear over the last two decades as the water users’ giant savings accounts — Lakes Mead and Powell — were depleted to critically low levels.

The “Natural Flow” is an estimate of how much water would flow past Lees Ferry if there were no diversions or dams upstream. Basically it’s the amount of water available for all of the river’s consumers. Source: USBR

That prompted federal water officials to call on the states to cut consumption by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet per year, or else they would implement the cuts themselves. After a lot of wrangling, the Lower Basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada) finally relented and proposed 3 million acre-feet of cuts. Perfect, right?

Wrong. Their cuts would be spread out over three years, meaning their reductions only amounted to 1 million acre-feet per year, which is far less than needed. The deal seemed to many of us like a non-starter — or at least like very faulty math

But it so happens that the proposal came on the heels of an extraordinarily wet winter in the Colorado River Basin, giving a bit of a boost not only to the reservoirs, but also to forecasters’ optimism regarding river flows over the next few years. Also, water users have responded to mandated cuts and done some voluntary cuts of their own, and the wet year meant they had to irrigate less, bringing Lower Basin water consumption to its lowest point in decades.

“New plot using the nClimGrid data, which is a better source than PRISM for long-term trends. Of course, the combined reservoir contents increase from last year, but the increase is less than 2011 and looks puny compared to the ‘hole’ in the reservoirs. The blue Loess lines subtly change. Last year those lines ended pointing downwards. This year they end flat-ish. 2023 temps were still above the 20th century average, although close. Another interesting aspect is that the 20C Mean and 21C Mean lines on the individual plots really don’t change much. Finally, the 2023 Natural Flows are almost exactly equal to 2019. (17.678 maf vs 17.672 maf). For all the hoopla about how this was record-setting year, the fact is that this year was significantly less than 2011 (20.159 maf) and no different than 2019” — Brad Udall

All of that was enough to prompt the feds to include the proposed Lower Basin cuts in an updated environmental impact statement and to make it the preferred alternative. They seem to think it will be enough to fend off the crisis, for now. And maybe it will be. But here are some numbers to consider:

  • Lake Powell currently holds about 8.7 million acre-feet of water, which is higher than the last two years, but 2.2 million AF less than on this date in 2020.
  • Lake Mead currently holds about 8.8 million acre-feet, which is less even than in 2021.
  • Lake Powell, alone, lost 136,550 acre-feet — or about 44.5 billion gallons — to evaporation between July 1 and Nov. 1 of this year.
  • The combined storage of Lake Meads and Powell is currently at about 17.5 million acre feet, which is less than a third of the total capacity. In other words, the reservoirs are still two-thirds empty — even after the big winter.

Crisis averted? Probably, at least for now. And with an El Niño pattern likely in coming months, we might get another big winter. Still, it seems somewhat imprudent to relax efforts to cut consumption — and to discount more drastic plans for dealing with the diminishing Colorado River.

Click here to read “Breaking down the’breakthrough’ Colorado River deal” from Jonathan written last May.

Disaster averted on #ColoradoRiver — for now — thanks to wet winter and states’ plan to conserve water, feds say — The #Denver Post

New plot using the nClimGrid data, which is a better source than PRISM for long-term trends. Of course, the combined reservoir contents increase from last year, but the increase is less than 2011 and looks puny compared to the ‘hole’ in the reservoirs. The blue Loess lines subtly change. Last year those lines ended pointing downwards. This year they end flat-ish. 2023 temps were still above the 20th century average, although close. Another interesting aspect is that the 20C Mean and 21C Mean lines on the individual plots really don’t change much. Finally, the 2023 Natural Flows are almost exactly equal to 2019. (17.678 maf vs 17.672 maf). For all the hoopla about how this was record-setting year, the fact is that this year was significantly less than 2011 (20.159 maf) and no different than 2019.

Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Elise Schmelzer). Here’s an excerpt:

The chances that water levels will fall below critical elevations before 2027 are now 8% at Lake Powell and 4% at Lake Mead, according to the new analysis. Previous estimates, based on September 2022 data and an assumption that nothing would change in the management of the reservoirs, had found a 57% chance of critically low elevations at Lake Powell and 52% at Lake Mead. With the improved forecasts, the federal government appears poised to move forward with a plan by the seven states in the Colorado River Basin to reduce use for the next three years. Earlier this year, federal officials proposed forcibly cutting the amount of water sent downstream to the Lower Basin if the states could not find a compromise on reducing use. On Wednesday, the officials said they had ruled out those forced cuts…

The Bureau of Reclamation now will undertake a more thorough analysis of the states’ plan. The plan, created by the three Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — would reduce water use by those states by 3 million acre-feet over the next three years. Most of that reduced use would be achieved through projects paid for by federal money from the Inflation Reduction Act, including conservation projects in Tucson and Phoenix. The four Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — signed onto the plan this spring.

Colorado’s top negotiator for the river said in a news release Wednesday that she and her team were reviewing the revised federal analysis and considering whether the analysis can “provide meaningful and enforceable reductions in use to address near-term challenges facing the Colorado River System.”

“If there’s a lesson to be learned from the last few years, it is that we must live within the means of the river if we hope to sustain it,” said Becky Mitchell, the state’s Colorado River commissioner.

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Short-term outlook for #LakePowell, #LakeMead improves — The #Aspen Daily News #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The federal government may reduce releases from Glen Canyon Dam (pictured above) in 2023 by an unprecedented 2-3 million acre-feet, a move that would trigger severe cuts in the Lower Basin. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Click the link to read the article on The Aspen Daily News website (Austin Corona). Here’s an excerpt:

A wet winter and strong runoff season have drastically reduced the possibility that water levels in lakes Powell and Mead will drop to “critical elevations” in the next three years, according to a newly updated draft statement released by the federal government on Wednesday [October 25, 2023].  Citing updated hydrological data, the updated draft statement indicates the short-term outlook for the two drought-stricken reservoirs is not as dire as previously thought…

Estimates in the new draft statement, released by the Bureau of Reclamation — the federal agency overseeing dams at the reservoirs — show a 49 and 48 percentage point decrease in the likelihood that water levels in lakes Powell and Mead will drop to critical elevations by 2027. This assumes the bureau and states take no additional action to alter existing reservoir operation guidelines. The decrease is in comparison with estimates from a previous statement released in April. According to the new draft statement, these likelihoods have dropped to only eight and four percent in Powell and Mead, respectively. A Wednesday press release defined “critical elevations” as low water levels that would threaten hydropower production and water releases through the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams. 

Wednesday’s draft statement attributes the reservoir’s brighter short-term outlook to a wet 2022/23 winter and a strong runoff season in the upper Colorado River basin. The newly revised draft statement used hydrological data from June, 2023, for its modeling, whereas the original document used hydrological data from September, 2022. 

The newly revised draft statement, titled the “Near-term Colorado River Operations: Revised Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement,” is the second version of a draft document released in April, which is meant to weigh the impacts of potential adjustments to dam operation guidelines at lakes Powell and Mead through 2026. According to Wednesday’s draft statement, the bureau is considering adjustments to dam operation guidelines because of “extraordinary circumstances” created by dropping water levels in lakes Powell and Mead. In 2022, declining water levels had reached all-time lows in both reservoirs. The bureau has expressed concern that existing dam operation guidelines created in 2007, along with existing drought contingency plans, would not be enough to sustain the reservoirs in the face of extended drought. According to a Wednesday press release, the statement is part of an ongoing effort to “address the ongoing drought and impacts from the climate crisis” and “protect Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam operations, system integrity, and public health and safety through 2026.”

How should we manage the drying #ColoradoRiver? Here’s what’s at stake in negotiations for its long-term future — The #Denver Post #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead at Hoover Dam, January 2022. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Elise Schmelzer). Here’s an excerpt:

Federal officials announced this week that last winter’s heavy snowpack and cuts in use likely will be enough to keep the river basin’s two major reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, from draining to water levels too low to generate power or move water downstream for at least three years. Federal officials, the seven Colorado River basin states and 30 tribes in the basin are negotiating the future of water management on the Colorado River and creating the next set of guidelines that will govern use of the critical water source in decades to come. The negotiations will be a “rollercoaster ride,” but history shows that the states are capable of coming to a consensus, said Jennifer Gimbel, a senior water policy scholar with Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center.

“There’s hope,” she said. “But it’s not going to be easy.”


One of the key problems negotiators must address is overuse by the Lower Basin states, experts said. The three states in the Lower Basin — Arizona, California and Nevada — are allocated 7.5 million acre-feet a year as are the four states in the Upper Basin: Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. Mexico also gets 1.5 million acre-feet. An acre-foot equals the amount of water it would take to cover a football field in one foot of water, which is generally considered enough water for two households’ annual use. The Lower Basin repeatedly has used more than its annual allotment of 7.5 million acre-feet while the Upper Basin uses less than its allotment. Between 2019 and 2021, the Lower Basin used more than 9 million acre-feet every year while the Upper Basin used less than 5 million acre-feet. In both 2020 and 2021, millions of acre-feet more water flowed out of Lake Mead and Lake Powell than flowed in.

“We’re going to have to reduce our water use, no matter what,” Hawes said. “We’re going to have to move away from the current sense of entitlement that a lot of water users have, and that’s not going to be easy.”

Officials also need to re-evaluate expected flows of the river and create a more accurate annual average flow from which to base agreements, Gimbel said. When the 1922 Colorado River Compact was signed, people estimated annual flows of up to 20 million acre-feet. That calculation was an overestimate and climate change has worsened the deficit even further. In recent years flows have been closer to 10 million acre-feet, Gimbel said.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter:

New #ColoradoRiver rules will be hard to agree on. A new report shows just how tricky it could be — KUNC #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River and the silt flats left behind by a receding Lake Powell. Note the old Hite Marina boat ramp on the left side of the image. This was once at water’s edge. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:

Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said there were some common threads in the feedback her agency received.

“There’s consensus that there needs to be an ability to operate the system more sustainably for the future, that hydrology may lead to drier conditions, and that there needs to be an understanding between supply and demand,” Touton said.

How exactly to bridge that supply-demand gap, though, is the existential question of ongoing river negotiations. State leaders are reluctant to volunteer major water cutbacks, trying to soften the blow that could be dealt to growing cities and agricultural economies if new reductions are rolled out. That’s left them mired in a standoff about how to proceed. For example, in a letter from the Upper Colorado River Commission – a group representing Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico – leaders outlined a list of priorities. The first of those points the finger at other states further downstream, saying that Reclamation’s new rules should address the supply and demand gap and “will require permanent Lower Basin reductions under most if not all operating conditions.”

Other letters, signed by state and agricultural leaders in the Lower Basin, say that post-2026 rules need to comply with the “Law of the River,” a longstanding collection of legal agreements that gives preference to the West’s oldest water users, many of whom operate in the Lower Basin.

Elizabeth Koebele, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno, has been reviewing the comments submitted to Reclamation.

“It’s unsurprising that the vast majority of the calls for action and letters describing potential action are focused on changes in the Lower Basin,” she said. “I think there’s a real strong focus on ‘let’s get the Lower Basin’s house in order, and then we can focus on the rest of the system.’”

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter:

Biden-Harris Administration Advances Long-Term Planning Efforts to Protect the #ColoradoRiver System: Process to develop future guidelines and strategies leverages historic investments from President’s Investing in America agenda — Interior #COriver #aridification

Graphic by Chas Chamberlin, Source: Western Resource Advocates

Click the link to read the release on the Department of Interior website:

WASHINGTON — The Biden-Harris administration today announced next steps in the formal process to develop future operating guidelines and strategies to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River system and strengthen water security in the West. The guidelines under development would be implemented in 2027, replacing the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which are set to expire at the end of 2026.

The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation published the Proposed Federal Action and a Scoping Summary Report related to Colorado River Basin operations post-2026. The Scoping Report, which was supported by a 60-day public scoping period, will inform the post-2026 operating guidelines. This planning process is separate from ongoing efforts to protect the Colorado River Basin through the end of 2026.

These steps to protect the Colorado River Basin now and into the future will leverage the historic investments being deployed through President Biden’s Investing in America agenda to help increase water conservation, improve water efficiency, protect critical environmental resources, and prevent the Colorado River system’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production. These actions form a key pillar of Bidenomics and represent the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation’s history. They provide pivotal resources to enhance the resilience of the West to drought and climate change, including to protect the short- and long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is investing $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety. The Inflation Reduction Act is investing an additional $4.6 billion to address the historic drought, including by funding water conservation efforts across the Colorado River Basin.

“President Biden’s Investing in America agenda has deployed historic investments as we’ve worked collaboratively with states, Tribes and communities throughout the West to find consensus solutions in the face of climate change and sustained drought,” said Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau. “As the Department works with those partners to stabilize the Colorado River in the short-term, we are also committed to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the Basin for decades to come based on the best-available science and with robust input from stakeholders across the West.”

The Colorado River Basin provides essential water supplies to approximately 40 million people and 30 Tribal Nations, nearly 5.5 million acres of agricultural lands, and habitat for ecological resources across parts of several Western states (including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and Mexico. But prolonged drought, driven by climate change and coupled with low runoff conditions in the last several years, resulted in historically low reservoir levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

The post-2026 planning process builds on the Biden-Harris administration’s ongoing efforts to protect the Colorado River Basin. Earlier this year, Administration leaders brought together stakeholders from across the Basin to build a consensus for water conservation efforts through the end of 2026, enabled by investments from the President’s Investing in America agenda. By the end of October, the Department will issue a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to revise the December 2007 Record of Decision, which will set interim guidelines through the end of 2026. The post-2026 process being advanced today will develop guidelines for when those interim guidelines would expire.

“The Colorado River Basin has come together over the past year to create a consensus path in the short term that now allows us to focus on the future. Today’s next steps for post-2026 planning helps continue the momentum between all stakeholders across the Basin on what the future operations of this critical system will look like,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “As the range of alternatives is developed, Reclamation is committed to a collaborative, inclusive and transparent process with our partners, stakeholders and the public.” 

To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year:

Post-2026 Planning Process

The post-2026 process is a multi-year effort that will identify a range of alternatives and ultimately determine operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead and other water management actions, potentially for decades into the future. Using the best-available science, Reclamation will develop a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) that will analyze how future operational guidelines and strategies can be sufficiently robust and adaptive to withstand a broad range of hydrological conditions and ultimately provide greater stability to water users and the public throughout the Colorado River Basin.

The completed draft EIS is anticipated by the end of 2024 and will include a public comment period. Reclamation anticipates a final EIS will be available in late 2025, followed by a Record of Decision in early 2026.

As part of Reclamation’s robust and transparent process to gather feedback, three virtual public webinars were held during the scoping period. Reclamation also engaged Basin stakeholders via stakeholder briefings; the formation of a new Federal-Tribes-States working group; two meetings of the Integrated Technical Education Workgroup; and individual communications.

While the post-2026 process will determine domestic operations, the Biden-Harris administration is committed to continued collaboration with the Republic of Mexico. It is anticipated that the International Boundary and Water Commission will facilitate consultations between the United States and Mexico, with the goal of continuing the Binational Cooperative Process under the 1944 Water Treaty.

Photo credit: Bureau of Reclamation

The Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin Compact at 75 — John Fleck and Eric Kuhn (InkStain) #COriver #aridification

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (John Fleck):

Editor’s note: Today (Oct. 11, 2023) is the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact. The following is an excerpt from Revisiting the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact on its Diamond Anniversary, a forthcoming analysis by Eric Kuhn and John Fleck, co-authors of the book Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.


The Upper Colorado River Basin Compact was signed by representatives from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming on October 11, 1948, after over two years of negotiations. It was an attempt to resolve the allocation of water among the five states, and for three quarters of a century it performed that task well.

But as we approach the middle of the third decade of the 21st century, the challenges of overallocation of Colorado River, over-appropriation of the water we have, and climate change reducing the river’s flows, the Upper Basin Compact and the extended body of rules in which it is embedded are showing their age.

At its simplest, the Upper Basin Compact divided the water use available from the 7.5 million acre-feet per year apportioned to the Upper Basin by the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The compact accomplished two major tasks:

  • It apportioned the consumptive use of water among the Upper Basin states using percentage allocations. Colorado received 51.75%, New Mexico 11.25%, Utah 23%, and Wyoming 14% of the water available for use in the Upper Basin. Arizona received a fixed 50,000 acre-feet per year.
  • It defined the obligations of the Upper Division states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) to deliver water to the Lower Basin at Lee Ferry to satisfy the requirements of the Colorado River Compact.

In pursuing a new set of post-2026 Colorado River Operating rules, major water agencies and state leaders have insisted that the “Law of the River” – the suite of rules dating to the 1922 Colorado River Compact and including the Upper Basin Compact – should be a fundamental guiding principle of future river management. “The Post-2026 Operations should reside in a framework consistent with a reasonable interpretation of the Law of the River,” the Central Arizona Project wrote, to cite one example among many.[1] But a careful review of the history of the Upper Basin Compact shows how tenuous a foundation the Law of the River provides, and how uncertain any attempt at “reasonable interpretation” might be, because of fundamental uncertainties about what the Law actually says.

  • When the Upper Basin compact was signed there was agreement on the definition of the “what” to which the percentage allocations apply. Water use in the Upper Basin was limited by water availability after meeting the Colorado River Compact’s Lee Ferry delivery requirements. Today, because of the impacts of climate change on flows, there is no such agreement and there are claims that the intent of the compact was to provide an equal amount of water for use to each basin. This creates deep uncertainty in the actual volumes of water available to each state.
  • There is still no consensus on how to measure consumptive use basin-wide. The Upper and Lower Basins use different methods, and Lower Basin tributary use is neither well understood nor quantified. This makes managing the river system challenging.
  • The Upper Division States claim overuse by the Lower Basin based by using one measurement method, while using a different method for their own uses. There is valid dispute over these theories and methodologies.
  • Tribal water rights remain unresolved and limited in some cases by provisions aimed at preventing tribes from using their full legal entitlements.
Native America in the Colorado River Basin. Credit: USBR

In negotiating the Upper Basin Compact, the states made key decisions on critical compact issues that continue to echo through 21st century water management.


Colorado River management has always suffered under controversy and ambiguity around the question of how to measure consumptive use. The Colorado River Compact did not include a definition of “beneficial consumptive use.” In the century since it was signed, two competing (and conflicting) methods have been used: diversions less return flow, and stream depletion. On some scales, they may look the same. But on large enough scales, they do not, in ways that have profound implications for 21st century river management decisions.

Under the stream depletion theory, each basin’s consumptive use is measured as the net reduction in natural flows caused by man-made activities. For example, the Upper Basin’s consumptive use would be calculated as the amount that upstream uses deplete the natural flow of the river at Lee Ferry.

During the Upper Basin Compact negotiations, Colorado and Arizona were the main proponents of this theory. It was ultimately adopted in Article VI of the Upper Basin compact as the method for measuring consumptive use.

But the stream depletion theory is not universally used in river management today. It is, for example, used to quantify reservoir evaporation in the Upper Basin, but not the Lower Basin. It is not used to measure Lower Basin mainstream uses, where the “diversions minus return flows” method is used instead. Uses on the Lower Basin tributaries, which are included in the compact definition of “Colorado River System” are currently not measured at all – using either theory.


The Upper Basin Compact is frequently praised for state-by-state allocations based on percentages (except Arizona), rather than absolute numbers, thus avoiding the mistake in the Colorado River Compact that over-allocated the river’s water.

But modern policy discussions are unsettled on a central issue – percentage of what? On their own, the percentages are meaningless without reference to some sort of underlying total amount of water available to be shared among the states.

When negotiating the Upper Basin Compact, the states’ representatives were clear on what they intended as the basis for using the percentages. They intended to apply the percentages to the amount of water available for consumptive use in the Upper Basin after meeting what they viewed as their compact “delivery obligations” at Lee Ferry.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter:

Today, there is no such consensus. Climate change has altered the river’s hydrology, putting the burden of impacts on the Upper Basin. Its leaders have responded by arguing that the compact’s negotiator’s intention was to equally divide the water available to each basin for use. Since climate change is causing a decline in natural flows, whatever Lee Ferry obligations the Upper Division States have must now be adjusted to reflect the new hydrologic reality.

Resolving this issue requires either litigation, negotiated settlement, or collectively agreeing on a modified approach – one that appropriately factors in climate change and maintains the benefits of the 1948 flexible percentage allocations.


While large Native American water needs and legal entitlements were identified before the Upper Basin Compact was negotiated, Tribal communities were excluded from the negotiations. Instead, Indian water use, which the negotiators knew was legally perfected long before 1922, was lumped into state allocations, with each state being responsible for meeting tribal needs from its share of the water. This gamble set up a potential conflict between the apportionments made by the Upper Basin Compact and the protections provided Indian rights under the Colorado River Compact.

A decade after the compact was signed, this conflict became real. In response, Upper Basin leaders took steps to limit tribal water rights and prevent full use of tribal entitlements, by inserting provisions in project authorizing legislation. The implications today are a legacy of intentional discrimination against tribes, unresolved legal questions around tribal water rights, and provisions that treat Native Americans as second-class citizens.

[1] Brenda Burman letter to Bureau of Reclamation, Aug. 15, 2023. See also comments by the state of Wyoming, the Salt River Project, the state of Colorado and the Upper Colorado River Commission.

Map credit: AGU

First Peoples 3: States, Feds and the First People Go Fishing — George Sibley (Sibley’s Rivers) #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):

I hope you’ll excuse my irreverence in showing the image above. If you haven’t noticed, ‘what’s real’ versus what we wish were real is what a lot of our discourse is about these days, and not just along the Colorado River. Denial is more than just a river in Egypt.

But moving on – I concluded the last post with a discussion of the first real break the First Peoples of the arid lands got after being forced onto reservations that were far too small for their timeless lives as hunter-foragers (requiring as much as a square mile or two per person in the arid lands). The U.S. Supreme Court decreed in 1908, in Winters v. The United States, that when the federal government reserved western land for any purpose (removed it from private-sector development), it also implicitly reserved enough water to carry out the purpose of the reservation.

For the First Peoples put on dryland reservations, the ‘Winters doctrine’ meant enough water had to be reserved to ‘civilize’ the First Peoples, primarily via irrigated farming. Quite a lot of water, in other words – enough reserved, with seniority to the date of the reservation’s creation, to throw a little panic in the hearts of the conquering Second People who, by the turn of the century, were already realizing the water supply was not really infinite.

But the Court said nothing in Winters about how the First Peoples – then still struggling just to maintain their cultural identities under a heavy-handed federal policy of forced assimilation – might go about obtaining their entitlement of water. And more to the point, with no developed economy of their own: how to turn that ‘Winters water’ into real water flowing onto the land and into their communities.

Given the supposedly benevolent and paternalistic trust relationship established in their treaties with the federal government, the First Peoples were aware that the ‘Great Father’ held their implied water rights in trust for them, just as the feds held the reservation in trust for them. So it seemed reasonable to presume that the government would be bound by the trust’s fiduciary responsibilities to help them do such basic things as determining how much water the Winters doctrine gave them, and helping them plan for the development of the water.

But while the Winters decision itself was not openly contested, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Reclamation and other Interior Department agencies did not jump eagerly into implementing it; they instead argued that there was nothing explicit in the treaties requiring them as federal trustees to help in assessing and developing the implicit Winters rights. This position was quite explicitly – as it were – affirmed just this past June, in the decision on a suit that the Navajo Nation began more than a decade ago against the Department of Interior, but which ended up before the Supreme Court as Arizona v. The Navajo Nation. The Supremes essentially absolved the federal agencies of any obligation not explicitly stated in the original reservation treaties – even though most of the treaties never got really specific about the trustee’s fiduciary obligations to the tribes. Had the current Supreme Court majority been deciding the Winters case in 1908, one suspects the whole issue of First People reserved water rights would never have made it out of the courtroom; the Fort Belknap Reservation treaty considered in the Winters decision said nothing explicitly about water rights reserved for the reservation.

The Supremes’ 5-4 decision against the Navajo plea this summer did not, however, go so far as some of the reporting in major media suggested. It did not, for example, really ‘dash the hopes of the Navajo Nation for more running water,’ as was reported in the L.A. Times, suggesting the federal government would henceforth deny water to the reservation.

Survey work begins in 2018 for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project on the Navajo Nation. Photo credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

In fact, while the Court was considering the case, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was plugging away on a multi-billion dollar 300-mile set of pipelines and pumps from the San Juan River in northern New Mexico as far south and west as Gallup, and eventually into Arizona and the Navajo capital in Window Rock, Arizona, bringing reliable and sustainable domestic water to numerous Navajo communities en route. In exchange for that project, the Navajo People will give up some of their still unquantified water rights – just as they did back in the 1960s when the Bureau undertook the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, to irrigate 110,000 acres of reservation land. (There will be more about the NIIP somewhere down the line: an interesting story in itself.)

These water projects for the Navajo move slowly – some of the planned NIIP irrigation system is still not completed sixty years later, and the anticipated completion of the pipeline project has been pushed back from 2024 to 2029. But the feds have in fact exercised some of their presumed fiduciary responsibility to help bring running water to the Navajo – even though the Supremes just said they have no explicit legal obligation to do so.

But the feds are still reluctant to provide what the Navajo most want – and have been requesting for decades: knowledge of how much water they actually have ‘reserved,’ in order to do their own water planning for whatever is left. The longest, most articulate and most interesting part of the Arizona v. Navajo Nation decision is Justice Gorsuch’s dissent against the conservative majority he usually joins. In addition to a thorough history of the relationship between the United States and the Navajo Nation from the beginning, he explores the big gray zone between the explicit letter of the law and the often more implicit spirit of the law. He all but accuses his conservative colleagues of fussy pettiness in their insistence on explicit water-development instructions for the government in treaties that often predated formal water law in the West.

Native America in the Colorado River Basin. Credit: USBR

The Navajo People are not alone in this ambiguous situation; most of the First Peoples in the Colorado River region who tried to get an answer on how much water is ‘reserved’ for their use, encountered the same ambiguity and reluctance from the federal government that had claimed the water and land in trust for them.

Basically this is not so much residual anti-Indian bias, as it is the First Peoples caught in the middle of a perpetual American tussle over the prerogatives of  individual states in the more federated than united states. The ‘first-come-first-served’ appropriation law for water use evolved from the bottom up in all of the arid-land states from the time they were territories, and with a clear bias toward protecting existing users. Water law thus came to be developed and administered at the state level – a prerogative guarded jealously by each state. Only interstate water disputes and problems involving federal lands (like the Winters case) went directly to the federal court system, often straight to the U.S. Supreme Court as the trial court.

The U.S. Supreme Court Building, current home of the Supreme Court, which opened in 1935. By Senate Democrats – 7W9A9324, CC BY 2.0,

Readers can thus imagine the consternation caused by the Supreme Court’s assertion of federal reserved water rights for any reservation of land that required water to fulfill the purpose of the reservation; this meant large quantities of water effectively removed from the state-administered appropriation systems – a huge wild card dropped in their already complicated water games. For organizations like the federal government that tend to kick controversial cans of worms down the road as far as possible, this meant putting off federal-versus-state showdowns like quantifying First People water rights.

This particular situation was, in the way of governments, clarified through adding further complexity in 1952, with an amendment to the section of the United States Code that gives the federal government ‘sovereign immunity’ against being sued for its actions. The ‘McCarran Amendment’ – by Nevada Senator Pat McCarran – waived that federal immunity for situations involving the states’ adjudication and administration of water rights. The federal government, in other words, would have to submit its senior reserved rights to state adjudication and administration; this would give all other water users impacted by the use of the reserved water the opportunity to oppose that use, and even to sue the federal government if their concerns were not addressed.

This established the state courts as the place where the First People water rights would have to be ultimately quantified and adjudicated. There are two ways in which the Peoples go about that. One way was to get their own reasonable estimates of their ‘civilizing’ needs, based on ‘practicably irrigable land,’ domestic and industrial needs to develop a ‘modern life,’ and go to court with that claim. Interior Department agencies will support them without taking the lead, trust notwithstanding. But depending on the quantity desired, it is a slow process, averaging well over a decade and with some tribal claims going on for two or three decades. And the ultimate decree is seldom what was asked. The Hopi People went through the court system, but withdrew their claim when the court offered them only a quarter of their claim.

And when the court process is over, as one tribal leader put it, what you have is ‘paper water,’ and the People are still faced with the challenge of turning the adjudicated amount into water flowing in ditches and pipes.

The other alternative for the tribes is a negotiated settlement: tribal leaders take their estimates of the Winters water rights they could reasonably expect to eventually get from the courts, and sit down in a mediated palaver with other water users, large and small, that are either already using the People’s water (free) or want to be using it in their own future, and they all see what can be worked out so some dependable tribal rights are shoehorned in without serious damage to existing (potentially junior) users. The People can lease or even sell some of their water from federal projects to other parties, in order to get the wherewithal to build systems for putting the rest of their water to work. They can trade water rights for projects (as the Navajo did for their pipeline project). They can try to work out joint systems for moving water around for different users. Plans can be made for sharing shortages in bad times rather than asserting seniority. Everyone involved can usually pare back existing uses and future needs a little (and is aware that eventually they will probably have to). Tribal settlements have even traded some of the tribe’s water for things not directly related to water, like a Yavapai Nation settlement near Tucson that gave up some water for $23 million federal funds for the Nation’s community development fund. Settlements obviously get very complicated, and embrace moves the courts would never tolerate. But in the end, the People have a settled water right and some of the wherewithal to develop the water. The bird in the hand that’s worth two in the bush. Depending on the state, settlements can be ratified by the courts, the legislature or Congress.

Some settlements are harder to obtain than others. A number of tribes, including the Navajo and Hopi, have to negotiate with big mining companies; growing cities like Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas can be hard negotiators. And most of the basin nations have to deal with a really difficult state, Arizona.

Arizona has a reason for being a difficult party in negotiations: 22 of the 30 First People reservations in the Colorado River region are entirely or partially in Arizona, and the downside of state administration of water rights makes each state responsible for tribal claims within the state. Fourteen of the Nations have settled rights for almost 1.9 million acre-feet, which, were they all acknowledged with seniority, would constitute two-thirds of Arizona’s total allotment under the Colorado River Compact and Law of the River; seven others (including the Navajo), are still trying to work their way through court and settlement processes, and would probably take care of the other third.

Arizona has responded to this situation by making it as hard as possible for the First Peoples to ascertain their Winters rights – and then to actually develop them. The big Bureau of Reclamation San Juan-Gallup pipeline project stops at the New Mexico-Arizona border, until the Navajo People have come up with a settlement or court decree the state finds acceptable, and the state has an arsenal of strategies for making that difficult – part of the reason the Navajo People wanted the Supreme Court to make establishing their total Winters rights a responsibility of the Interior Department. For those wishing to look at this more deeply, the July 2023 High Country News (issue 55:7) has an excellent set of articles, assembled by their staff and the ProPublica investigative journalists.

Map credit: AGU

The other Colorado River Basin states are of course happy to let Arizona grapple with this alone, although in a parallel intelligent and generous universe, it would probably be acknowledged as everyone’s problem. But we begin with western state boundaries that, for the most part, bear no relationship to any geographic reality – then give the individual geographically irrelevant states the duty of administering first-come-first-served water rights on a river that mostly ignores state boundaries, despite the fact that all the states have been mandated to respect each other’s prior appropriations from the river. We further complicate this tangle by dividing the river into two basins, essentially two rivers: one river required to supply a set amount of water to the other river, irrespective of how much water the upper river receives naturally.

If there is a beam of light in this morass of management murk, possibly lighting a way to a more intelligent future, it might be the First Peoples plugging away through their creative settlement palavers to get a little water by giving a little, rather than (futilely) asserting their reserved senior rights. That may be the shape of a functional future; but it will be hard to bring that kind of open negotiation to a system whose foundation law is the fiercely guarded first-come-first-served philosophy.

Next post, I want to look at some First People stories of life along the river, not old stories, but stories from the 20th century – which is where the Colorado River region still seems to be, culturally, economically and politically, as the past year has shown in Colorado River management decisions. Only the climate is really in the 21st century.

Wheat fields along the Colorado River at the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation. Wheat, alfalfa and melons are among the most important crops here. By Maunus at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

#Colorado Lawmakers seek answers from top #ColoradoRiver officials as critical talks begin — Fresh Water News #COriver #aridification #cwc2023

Colorado River near the headwaters. Photo credit: Dave Showalter

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Larry Morandi):

Colorado won’t be buying up agricultural water rights to reduce water use and help stabilize the Colorado River, according to a briefing top river officials provided state lawmakers last week.

Rebecca Mitchell, Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, reassured lawmakers that the state would not buy agricultural water rights from growers as part of any program to reduce Colorado River water use within the state.

Asked by Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, whether the state wants to permanently acquire water from agriculture, Mitchell responded with an emphatic “No … We don’t have our eyes set on agricultural [water] rights.”

She also emphasized that whatever policies Colorado considers “should focus on making our own state stronger… We need to do this to protect Colorado.”

Mitchell’s comments came at a meeting of the legislature’s Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee Aug. 23 in Steamboat Springs, held during the Colorado Water Congress Summer Conference.

The Colorado River, despite a bountiful water year thus far, has been mired in a 23-plus year drought, believed to be the worst in at least 1,200 years, and it is witnessing alarming reductions in flows due to climate change and overuse.

Last year lakes Powell and Mead, the river’s largest reservoirs, dropped to historic lows and federal officials ordered all seven Colorado River Basin states to permanently reduce water use by 2 million acre-feet to 4 million acre-feet annually.

This summer critical negotiations on how to continue to operate the river beyond 2026, when current operating guidelines expire, have begun. Mitchell said it was critical the new federal operating guidelines change the way water is released from lakes Powell and Mead.  “Operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead must respond to actual hydrology [how much the river produces] and available water supply.” She noted that currently, in eight out of 10 years, more water leaves Lake Powell than comes in.

As the crisis on the river continues, Colorado water users, growers and lawmakers have been asking for more clarity and more assurances on how the state intends to protect their water interests and help stabilize the giant river system.

Because agriculture uses roughly 80% of the Colorado River’s supplies, a major focus across the seven-state basin is on how to reduce agricultural water use while maintaining farm economies and food production.

Earlier this year a new federal program, known as the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP), launched, but it received little interest from Colorado growers.

It used federal funds to provide incentives to Upper Basin irrigators to temporarily reduce their use of Colorado River water.

Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, the agency that represents Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming on Colorado River issues, said the idea was “to demonstrate that the Upper Basin has the tools to manage water uses and to take actions necessary to live within the means of the river.”

But the results so far have been disappointing, with low farmer participation and only 2,700 acre-feet of water conserved. Cullom said there is no commitment yet to run the SCPP again in 2024.

Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose,  asked how it might be improved. Cullom said the program would need to operate differently, including starting earlier, developing different pricing policies, and providing more clarity on the program’s purpose and scope, among other things.

Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, asked what additional tools could help agriculture engage in more conservation? Based on feedback he has received from water users, Cullom suggested expanding investments in irrigation efficiency infrastructure—such as canal lining, sprinkler drip systems, center pivot irrigation—and growing alternative crops.

Key to maintaining ownership of water, under Colorado law, is to demonstrate it is being used. Some growers fear that if they reduce use through conservation techniques, their water rights could be taken from them.

 Roberts asked Mitchell if Colorado should consider a recently enacted Arizona law that protects agricultural water users who invest in greater efficiencies from losing their water rights. She thought the state already offered those protections “at some level” and would get back to the committee to see if they could be expanded.

Roberts said it would be a good idea “if we could give them assurances in law that they won’t lose their water rights just because they tried to be more efficient.”

Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at

Map of the Colorado River drainage basin, created using USGS data. By Shannon1 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

Prepared remarks from Upper #ColoradoRiver Commissioner Becky Mitchell at the 2023 #Colorado #Water Congress Summer Convention #COriver #aridification #CWC2023

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Katie Weeman):


Good morning. My name is Becky Mitchell and I am proud to be joining you as Colorado’s first, full-time Colorado River Commissioner. This change took effect on July 1st. With thanks to the General Assembly and Governor Polis, I stepped out of the CWCB Director role – which is now in Lauren’s very capable hands – and have dedicated myself full-time to protecting our state’s significant interests in the Colorado River. The Commissioner role is a unique one. I am charged by the Governor to represent the state in interstate Colorado River matters, which includes all of our diverse water users, sectors, and geographies. It is not a role that I take lightly. And I truly appreciate the support that so many of you have lent as we shape the future of the Colorado River. I’d like to take “the last word,” as the agenda says, to update you on interstate Colorado River matters; plus, what I’m doing to push everyone in the basin to live within its means –- something we in Colorado have always done.

The past year has been tumultuous for the Colorado River. Last summer, when we gathered here in Steamboat, the Upper Division States had just completed the Five Point Plan in response to Commissioner Touton’s call for the basin states to conserve 2 to 3 million acre-feet. To put that in perspective: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming – combined – used three and a half million acre-feet in 2022.

The current water level of Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam July 2023. Photo credit: Reclamation

You’ll remember how bad the situation was. The reservoirs were declining quickly, with daily headlines in the papers. The federal government took emergency action to reduce releases from Lake Powell. The Upper Division States provided DROA water from Upper Basin reservoirs to prop up elevations at Lake Powell. You might also remember how the Lower Basin was unable and unwilling to reach agreement to do their part to conserve water.

Water users are urgently trying to keep Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border from dropping to a point where Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate electricity. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

The Five Point Plan showed the federal government that the Upper Division States are united, committed to being part of the solution, and limited in the scale of what we can do.

One of the five points was a commitment to pursue water conservation on a voluntary, temporary, and compensated basis through the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP). After an incredibly fast reauthorization by Congress, the UCRC launched SCPP earlier this year. Contracts were temporary – for just one year; completely voluntary; and fairly compensated – on average, $422 an acre-foot. All conserved water became system water, used to mitigate the impacts of drought in the Upper Basin. In total, the Upper Basin conserved less than 38,000 acre-feet of water in 64 projects; 2,700 acre-feet of which was conserved by 22 projects in Colorado.

A second point in the Five Point Plan was to continue the Demand Management Feasibility Investigation. Like SCPP, Demand Management would be a temporary, voluntary, and compensated program. The difference is that water conserved in a Demand Management program would be stored in a pool to ensure ongoing Compact compliance for the Upper Division States. Each Upper Division State must find that a Demand Management program is feasible for their state, before any such program could be established. We’ve been discussing Demand Management for a few years now. I want to take a quick second to thank you all for your continued engagement on the topic. Regardless of whether Colorado moves forward with any such program, your input – and debates – have shaped our state’s understanding of conservation programs overall.

Then – and now – the Upper Division States recognized that we did not cause and cannot solve the problem. Overuse in the Lower Basin has driven the Colorado River System into crisis. But inaction is not the answer.


I want to pause here to emphasize something that is so, so important to say: even in the driest of years, the Upper Division States have never been out of compliance with the Compact. We are not even close. If flows at Lees Ferry fall below 75 million acre feet over a 10-year period, it would prompt an inquiry into the cause. If the cause is something other than our depletions, we have not violated the Compact. Remember, we are currently using less than half the flows of the River and less than half of what the Compact apportioned to us.

My team takes the importance of protecting Colorado’s legal interests very seriously. The Compact assures us the ability to develop our half of the river into perpetuity – at our own pace, without risk of a Lower Basin giant guzzling up our share.

I can’t say this clearly enough: Colorado is not at risk of Compact curtailment. We do ourselves a disservice by suggesting otherwise and play right into the Lower Basin’s strategies.


Now, back to our recap of the last year. Even to those who actively read about the Colorado River, the issues have been complicated by two distinct federal processes

The first process – the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to revise the ‘07 Guidelines – started in late 2022 to provide the Bureau of Reclamation with additional tools to protect Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams between now and 2026. Specifically, the SEIS could change operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead in the near-term to allow for lower releases out of those reservoirs. Last January, I was driving back-and-forth between Water Congress and a Basin States meeting, trying to reach an agreement with our neighbors about what input to provide to the federal government on this process. Ultimately, six states signed a letter urging the Bureau of Reclamation to consider several options for reductions in uses in the Lower Basin, including assessment of evaporation and transit losses. Fast forward to spring, and Reclamation released a draft SEIS with two action alternatives and one no-action alternative. No alternative reached upstream to the Upper Basin – each was focused on reducing uses downstream of the reservoirs. In response, the Lower Basin States negotiated a different proposal, which they say will conserve 3 million acre-feet. The Upper Division States agreed to transmit that plan to Reclamation for analysis. We are expecting their findings in the coming weeks, and a revised Draft EIS should provide this analysis. To be clear: while we applaud our downstream neighbors’ efforts to conserve water, the Upper Division States did not, and cannot, endorse the Lower Basin’s proposal. We have not yet seen enough detail about the conservation efforts.

But please keep in mind: this SEIS would develop a short-term fix for the ‘07 Guidelines, which have proved inefficient to protect the System.

This year’s hydrology has given us a much-needed reprieve, but it has not changed the fundamental challenges we still face. We must re-focus our efforts on developing longer-term solutions for management of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. This is the only way to stop living crisis to crisis on the Colorado River.

That brings me to the second federal process – in June, the federal government announced the Post-2026 Environmental Impact Statement Process, which will develop new operating guidelines for Powell and Mead. To be blunt: this is the process that matters the most for Colorado. The current guidelines, the ‘07 Guidelines, have been gamed by the Lower Basin. They have knowingly maximized releases from Powell for decades, simultaneously draining Mead and ignoring basic physics like evaporation and transit losses. The silver lining is that the ‘07 Guidelines were interim, by design, so that we could learn from their implementation – and we did learn a lot.


The ‘07 Guidelines have illustrated why Colorado and the Upper Division States must care about sustainable operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead. We cannot have our fate tied to continued Lower Basin overuse.

Colorado statewide annual temperature anomaly (F) with respect to the 1901-2000 average. Graphic credit: Becky Bolinger/Colorado Climate Center

I met with many of you, with the Tribal Nations, with entities like the Basin Roundtables, IBCC, and conservancy districts, to develop my guiding principles for the post-2026 negotiation.

First, we must acknowledge that climate change is real. We can’t count on decades like the 80s and 90s; we need to be prepared for years like the early 2000s. Our future is going to be drier and more variable.

Second, water users in the Lower Basin are not more important than water users in the Upper Basin. The Upper and Lower Basins have equal apportionments to the river in perpetuity, established by the 1922 Colorado River Compact. We are not re-negotiating the Compact, and any guidelines for post-2026 operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead must be rooted in the Compacts and the Treaty with Mexico.


Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter:

Third, the Colorado River is not providing enough to sustain overuse in the Lower Basin. We’ve seen the reservoirs crash to critically low levels. Water use in the Lower Basin cannot continue to exceed available supplies and operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead must better respond to actual hydrology. The Lower Basin must account for all depletions, including evaporation and transit losses.

Fourth, Compact curtailment is not an option. The Upper Basin is apportioned half of the river’s flows in perpetuity, and we are using a lot less that.

Fifth, operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead must respond to actual hydrology and available water supplies. This will be hard for water users in the Lower Basin because it will demand change. Lake Powell releases must be determined by actual hydrology and protecting storage rather than by Lake Mead conditions.

Native America in the Colorado River Basin. Credit: USBR

Sixth, the Tribal Nations have federal reserved water rights that must be preserved. The Tribal Nations have water rights that they are entitled to use. Solutions for overuse in the Lower Basin cannot continue to depend on Tribes’ undeveloped federal reserved water righ.

And finally, we need solutions that comply with federal environmental law and advance coordination between the United States and Mexico.

I am honored to be Colorado’s interstate negotiator, and will stand firm by these principles. Future operations must live within the means of the river.


We are in difficult negotiations with the Basin States, and I suspect things will get harder before they get easier. From experience, I know we are better when we stand together as seven basin states. But I also know we must be ready to stand alone when necessary to defend our significant interests in the river. The only way that I can stand alone in the basin is if Colorado can stand together as a state.

I have worked hard to facilitate unity across our state – and a huge thank you to you who’ve organized meetings, rearranged agendas, and teed up discussions with me. Unity is a two-way street. While I work to understand the needs and concerns of Colorado’s diverse water users, diverse water users work to understand the needs and concerns of other people in the state. Unity does not necessarily mean agreement. It’s not an echo chamber – Coloradans have never seen eye-to-eye on all of our water issues, and the post-2026 negotiations will be no different. But unity does mean that we’re good-faith actors with one another; that we agree to protect Coloradans’ rights on our namesake river; and that we commit to finding shared values where we can.

As Commissioner, I represent the entire state – all of our diverse interests and needs. It is so important that we put our best foot forward on the matters where we are unified, while leaving room for difficult discussions to continue within our state.


The post-2026 negotiations matter to Colorado: we must seek operations that are responsive to climate change and actual hydrology. I hope you’ll stay interested, involved, and committed to a future where all in the basin live within the means of the river. You have heard me say it before, but I am going to say it again: we are at a critical juncture on the Colorado River. We have an opportunity to negotiate a better deal on how Lake Powell and Lake Mead are operated – a better deal for our State and also for the 40 million people who depend on this critical resource. I am bringing all of myself and the State’s resources to this effort, and I will need each of you, too.

Thank you all for your continued support.

Map credit: AGU

Deadpool Diaries: rekindling optimism? — John Fleck (InkStain) #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead used to be here (October 2022). Photo by John Fleck

Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (John Fleck):

Something remarkable is happening this year in the Lower Colorado River Basin that provides both a glimmer of hope about what durable basin solutions might look like, and also a clear demonstration of the obstacles still standing in their way.


Southern Nevada’s projected 2023 use right now (the following is based on Reclamation’s Aug. 14 water forecast run) has dropped below 200,000 acre feet, sitting today at 199,943 af. That would be Nevada’s lowest take on the Colorado river since 1992. Southern Nevada’s population (Clark County, basically “greater Las Vegas”) has nearly tripled in that time.

Nevada has demonstrated its ability to take deep cuts without jeopardizing the structure and function of the communities that depend on Colorado River water.


Arizona’s projected 2023 use, 1,974,819 acre feet, has dropped below 2 million acre feet, also the lowest since 1992. The Central Arizona Project, which supplies the Phoenix-Tucson area, is projected to take just 605,171 acre feet this year. That is 40 percent of CAP’s 21st-century average.

Arizona has demonstrated its ability to take deep cuts without jeopardizing the structure and function of the communities that depend on Colorado River water.


California’s use has dropped below 4 million acre feet, which would be the first time that’s happened since 2019, currently 10 percent below the state’s 21st century average.

Ok, the comparison is striking, right? Some states are doing a lot, other states are doing less. But I’m trying to be optimistic here, California’s water use reductions aren’t nothing! Everyone’s using less water!

But the relative depth of California’s cuts has not yet demonstrated its ability to take deep cuts without jeopardizing the structure and function of the communities that depend on Colorado River water.



The premise of a piece I wrote earlier this year in the New York Times is that there’s no way we can fix the Colorado River supply/use imbalance if California insists that the burden of overallocation and climate change fall on everyone else.

The new Schmidt/Yackulic/Kuhn paper puts the needed cuts at 20 percent just to stabilize the system – more if we’re going to rebuild a buffer against a repeat of last year’s shit show. Arizona and Nevada have figured out how to cut a lot more than that.

California, not so much.


The above picture, which I took in October, no longer represents reality. Based on the latest Sentinel satellite imagery, a bit of water has returned to Boulder Harbor on Lake Mead’s western shore.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter:

Feds ease up on #ColoradoRiver restrictions — for now: This year’s wet winter helped save the river from collapse. But a reckoning is on the horizon — Grist #COriver #aridification

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on the Grist website (Jake Bittle):

The water shortage crisis on the Colorado River is improving, but it’s far from over.

That was the message from the Biden administration on Tuesday, as officials announced they would loosen water restrictions on the river in 2024. Thanks to robust winter snowpack that provided about 33 percent more moisture than the average year, the water levels in the riverʻs two main reservoirs have begun to stabilize after plummeting over three years. This has lessened the need for states in the Southwest to cut their water usage.

The total cuts will be about 20 percent lighter than they were last year, requiring three Southwest states and Mexico to save around 600,000 acre-feet of water — enough to supply roughly 1.2 million homes.

Even so, the administration left some mandatory restrictions in place to account for the fact that the reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are still emptier than they have been at almost any point in history. That’s due in large part to a millennium-scale drought that researchers believe was made much more likely by climate change. And even as federal officials eased up on mandatory restrictions, they were also preparing to dole out billions of dollars to the region’s farmers and cities in an effort to further reduce water usage on the river.

“The above-average precipitation this year was a welcome relief,” said Camille Camimlim Touton, the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees the river, in a press release. “We have the time to focus on the long-term sustainability solutions needed in the Colorado River Basin.”

During the past three years, as the Colorado River has dried up, the federal government has used the elevation of Lake Mead as a benchmark to determine what restrictions it needs to impose on Arizona, Nevada, and California, the three states in what’s known as the riverʻs “Lower Basin,” as well as Mexico. In practice, the state that has suffered the most under this system is Arizona, which has junior rights to the river as a result of a compromise it made in the 1960s to secure funding for canal infrastructure; it has borne almost all the early cuts.

The Biden administrationʻs announcement this week, which will move the river from a “Tier 2a” shortage back down to a “Tier 1” shortage, should give Arizona cotton farmers and Phoenix-area cities a little more breathing room next year. But the river’s long-term prognosis means that it may not be wise for farmers to start planting more fields, or for cities to keep adding new golf courses and lawns.

“I’d say it’s probably not going to help that situation much,” said Paco Ollerton, a farmer who grows cotton and other crops outside the city of Casa Grande, south of Phoenix. “The acreage has dropped quite a bit. We’re probably about 25 percent fallow in the district this year.” The easing of drought restrictions might help some farmers increase their acreage, Ollerton added, but many will hold off on replanting because they’re wary of future cuts.

Even as the Biden administration sets a more relaxed standard for 2024, officials are preparing to roll out a larger series of water cuts that will last for the next three years. These bigger cuts, which the administration hopes will lift the river out of the drought-induced crisis of the past few years, were the result of a hard-fought compromise between the seven states that use the river — and in particular between the two largest users, Arizona and California.

The announcement of the compromise plan in May brought an end to a year of tense negotiations between the states and the Biden administration, triggered by unprecedented fears that Lake Powell and Lake Mead would bottom out altogether. In that doomsday scenario, hydroelectric plants that provide power to millions of people would have shut down, and water might not have been able to move past the reservoirs at all. The compromise plan uses about $1.5 billion in drought funding from the Inflation Reduction Act to compensate farmers and cities for using less water over the next three years. 

This was a welcome outcome for farmers in places like Imperial County, California, who had expected to take uncompensated water cuts for the first time in history, as well as for city leaders in Arizona, who had stood to lose a huge share of their Colorado River water during the negotiations. The compromise was only possible because of this year’s wet winter, which deposited enough snow to prop up water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. With reservoirs recovering, the states could get away with more modest cuts — and pay for them with money that Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona secured within the Inflation Reduction Act last year.

Even so, the compromise leaves several questions unanswered. The biggest question is how the states can reduce usage over the long term to account for the gradual aridification of the river. Farmers and cities can save water through techniques like drip irrigation or wastewater recycling, but these technologies are expensive to implement. In all likelihood, some places will have to farm less or build fewer houses. Furthermore, many tribal nations along the river still can’t access the water to which they have legal rights, and satisfying those rights could mean taking water away from other non-tribal users.

The federal government needs to hash out answers to these questions with states and tribes by the end of 2026, when the current operating guidelines for the river will expire. The Biden administration already kicked off that process last month when it asked stakeholders to weigh in on the river’s future. The negotiations won’t kick off in earnest for months or even years, but the administration’s goal is clear: avoid a repeat of the past yearʻs crisis at all costs.

Map credit: AGU

#ColoradoRiver restrictions eased thanks to “lucky” rain and snow but negotiators race toward long-term fix: Colorado River’s biggest reservoirs at 36% capacity despite wet year — The #Denver Post #COriver #LakePowell #LakeMead #aridification

The current water level of Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam July 2023. Photo credit: Reclamation

Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Elise Schmelzer). Here’s an excerpt:

Federal officials on Tuesday temporarily eased Colorado River water use restrictions due to a “lucky” year of increased precipitation, but drought and overuse remain a crisis as officials begin negotiations for the future of the river on which 40 million people in the West rely for drinking, agriculture and water. Colorado’s top water officials on Tuesday submitted the state’s first formal comments on negotiations that will govern the use of the river after current guidelines expire in 2026. They urged change in how Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the two major water storage reservoirs on the river — are operated as the West becomes hotter and drier…

Negotiations for a new plan to replace a 2007 agreement began in June between federal officials, tribal leaders and the seven basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and California. The groups must come to an agreement by 2027, when the current guidelines established in 2007 end. New operating guidelines must account for climate change as well as “recognize that Lower Basin overuse is unsustainable and puts the entire system at risk,” according to the letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation from Mitchell and Lauren Ris, acting director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board…

Water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell rose this spring due to increased snow and rain in the region. The wet winter and spring mean for the next year Lake Mead will operate in a Level 1 Storage Condition, a “significant improvement” from the Level 2 Shortage Condition implemented in 2022, the Bureau of Reclamation announced Tuesday…That means two Lower Basin states that rely on releases from the reservoirs for water — Nevada and Arizona  — will have a little more water to work with this year. Cuts don’t affect allocations to the Upper Basin states — Colorado, Utah, New Mexico or Wyoming — because they are upstream of the reservoirs…

Heavy snowfall and increased rains helped boost flows in the Colorado River Basin this winter and spring, raising the water levels of reservoirs across the system.  Lake Mead rose more than 10 feet and Lake Powell rose more than 50 feet.

“We were on the verge of a crash,” said Matt Rice, director of the Colorado Basin Program at American Rivers. “There’s no doubt we got lucky.”

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter:

Reclamation announces 2024 operating conditions for #LakePowell and #LakeMead #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The current water level of Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam July 2023. Photo credit: Reclamation

Click the link to read the release on the Reclamation website:

Significant improvement for Lake Mead due to improved hydrology, ongoing conservation efforts. Operating guidelines in effect until Reclamation finalizes SEIS, including analysis of consensus-based state conservation agreement.

August 15, 2023

BOULDER CITY, Nev. – The Bureau of Reclamation today released the Colorado River Basin August 2023 24-Month Study, which determines the tiers for the coordinated operation of Lake Powell and Lake Mead for 2024. These operating conditions, which are based on existing agreements under the 2007 guidelines and lower basin Drought Contingency Plans, will be in effect until the near-term guidelines from the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) are finalized. Reclamation is currently analyzing the consensus-based Lower Division States proposed alternative for the SEIS.

Based on projections in the 24-Month Study, Lake Powell will operate in a Mid-Elevation Release Tier with a 7.48 million acre-feet release in water year 2024. Consistent with existing agreements, Lake Mead will operate in a Level 1 Shortage Condition – an improvement from the Level 2 Shortage Condition announced last year – with required shortages by Arizona and Nevada, coupled with Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan water savings contributions. Mexico’s water delivery will be reduced consistent with Minute 323.

Lake Mead’s release in 2023 is projected to be the lowest in 30 years, approximately one and half million acre-feet lower than an average normal year, reflecting extensive, ongoing conservation efforts in the Lower Basin states funded in part by President Biden’s historic Investing in America agenda, above-normal inflows in the lower basin below Hoover Dam, and conservation in Mexico.

Investments in system conservation and improved hydrology this year have provided an opportunity to recover some reservoir storage. At the same time, the Colorado River system continues to face low elevations, with Lake Powell and Lake Mead at a combined storage of 36%.

“The above-average precipitation this year was a welcome relief, and coupled with our hard work for system conservation, we have the time to focus on the long-term sustainability solutions needed in the Colorado River Basin. However, Lake Powell and Lake Mead – the two largest reservoirs in the United States and the two largest storage units in the Colorado River system – remain at historically low levels,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “As we experience a warmer, drier west due to a prolonged drought, accelerated by climate change, Reclamation is committed to leading inclusive and transparent efforts to develop the next-generation framework for managing the river system.”

The Development of Near- and Long-Term Guidelines

Reclamation is simultaneously developing both near- and long-term guidelines for Lake Powell and Lake Mead operations. The supplemental SEIS in progress focuses on near-term actions, which would be applicable from 2024 through 2026 based on potential changes to limited sections of the 2007 Interim Guidelines. Reclamation temporarily withdrew the SEIS so it could fully analyze the consensus-based Lower Division States proposed alternative and will publish an updated draft SEIS for public review and comment with the consensus-based proposal as an action alternative later this year.

In addition to several agreements that have already been finalized, a consensus-based proposal – agreed upon by the three Lower Basin states earlier this year – commits to measures to conserve at least 3 million-acre-feet (maf) of system water through the end of 2026, when the current operating guidelines are set to expire.

The long-term guidelines, informally referred to as Post 2026 Operations, will revisit the 2007 Interim Guidelines in full, as well as other operating agreements that expire in 2026, including Drought Contingency Plans and Minute 323. In June, Reclamation initiated the formal process to develop the long-term operating guidelines.

Reclamation is committed to an inclusive and transparent process that enhances meaningful Tribal engagement as well as collaboration with all stakeholders in the basin. In response to Tribal feedback, the Department of the Interior established the first-ever Federal-Tribal-State partnership to promote equitable information-sharing and discussion among the sovereign governments in the Colorado River Basin. All 30 Colorado River Basin Tribal Nations and the seven U.S. basin states were invited to participate in this new group. The group met for the first time last week with Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, Commissioner Touton, and other Department leaders. The formation of this new group does not replace any independent consultation with either Tribes or states.

2024 Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead

Until the updated near-term guidelines are finalized once the supplemental SEIS is complete, Reclamation will continue to implement the plans developed over the past two decades that lay out detailed operational rules for these critical Colorado River reservoirs through 2026:

  • Lake Powell Mid-Elevation Release Tier: The 24-Month Study, with an 8.23 maf release pattern in October – December 2023, projects Lake Powell’s January 1, 2024, elevation to be 3,568.57 feet – about 130 feet below full and about 80 feet above minimum power pool. Based on this projection, Lake Powell will operate in the Mid-Elevation Release Tier in water year 2024 (October 1, 2023, through September 30, 2024). Under this tier, Lake Powell will release 7.48 million acre-feet in water year 2024 without the potential for a mid-year adjustment in April 2024. Under the most probable scenario, and with a 7.48 maf release pattern in October – December 2023, Lake Powell’s projected elevation on January 1, 2024, is 3,573.68 feet.
  • Lake Mead Level 1 Shortage Condition: The 24-Month Study projects Lake Mead’s January 1, 2024, elevation to be 1,065.27 feet – about 10 feet below the Lower Basin shortage determination trigger of 1,075 feet and about 25 feet below the drought contingency plan trigger of 1,090 feet. This elevation is based on a 7.48 maf release from Lake Powell in water year 2024. Based on this projection, Lake Mead will operate in a Level 1 Shortage Condition for calendar year 2024 (January 1, 2024, through December 31, 2024). This is a significant improvement from the Level 2 Shortage Condition announced last year. The required shortage reductions and water savings contributions under the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, 2019 Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan and Minute 323 to the 1944 Water Treaty with Mexico are:
    • Arizona:  512,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 18% of the state’s annual apportionment.
    • Nevada:  21,000 acre-feet, which is 7% of the state’s annual apportionment.
    • Mexico:  80,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 5% of the country’s annual allotment.

Lower Basin projections for Lake Mead include updated water orders to reflect additional conservation efforts and new completed system conservation agreements under the Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program.

President Biden’s Investing in America Agenda

System conservation and efficiency programs in the Colorado River Basin are being strengthened by President Biden’s Investing in America agenda and will invest in long-term durable system efficiency improvements that result in quantifiable, verifiable water savings in the Basin.

The Investing in America agenda represents the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation’s history and is providing much-needed resources to enhance Western communities’ resilience to drought and climate change, including protecting the short- and long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is investing a total of $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety. The Inflation Reduction Act is investing an additional $4.6 billion to address the historic drought.

To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year once these projects are complete:

Credit: Reclamation
Credit: Reclamation

The #Runoff: Non-depletion vs. delivery obligation — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River from Navajo Bridge below Lee’s Ferry and Glen Canyon Dam. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the newsletter on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

Colorado River politics is heating up with the looming negotiation of the post-2026 operational guidelines and state representatives are laying the groundwork to get Colorado’s water world on the same page regarding the state’s position and talking points. 

Colorado’s now full-time commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission Becky Mitchell has embarked on what she called a road show, meeting with water managers and organizations around the state to open the lines of communication and share news related to the negotiations. Among what she called her “irrefutable truths” is that according to the 1922 Colorado River Compact that divided the waters equally (7.5 million acre-feet per year to each) between the upper and lower basins, the upper basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) do not have an obligation to deliver 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower basin. What they have is a “non-depletion” obligation. So long as the upper basin uses less than 75 million acre-feet over 10 years, there’s no compact violation. I doubt the lower basin sees it that way.

What the compact actually says is this: “The States of the Upper Division will not cause the flow of the river at Lee Ferry to be depleted below an aggregate of 75,000,000 acre-feet for any period of ten consecutive years…” 

Its actual meaning has long been a point of contention for Colorado River scholars. Many people believe the language represents a de facto delivery obligation, with the upper basin required to send 75 million acre-feet over 10 years to the lower basin. 

This delivery obligation interpretation favors the lower basin and the non-depletion obligation interpretation favors the upper basin. It’s important because whether the upper basin violates the compact, which would trigger mandatory cutbacks, may hinge on this interpretation.

Also, presumably in an effort to communicate the state’s positions going into the post-2026 negotiations — while presenting it as the Law of the River 101 — representatives from the Colorado Attorney General’s office made an appearance at the Colorado Basin Roundtable meeting in July and pushed the non-depletion point of view as the law of the land. While seeing it as a non-depletion obligation is a very good political messaging strategy for the upper basin, it is in fact an unsettled legal argument. 

Another wrinkle in the non-depletion vs. delivery obligation debate is climate change. Scientists have found that Colorado River flows have declined nearly 20% from the 20th century average and that higher temperatures are responsible for about one-third of that. The compact clearly says that the states of the upper division will not cause flows to be depleted, but what if it’s not the states’ water use (which remains well below their 7.5 million acre-feet per year allocation), but climate change that causes flows to be depleted? Would that still be considered a compact violation? Colorado River expert and author Eric Kuhn has been asking this question for years, but he isn’t ready to test it. 

“Will it survive legal scrutiny? I’m not sure I would want to be the attorney that leads with that argument,” he said.

2023 #COleg: New #ColoradoRiver task force buckles down to work this week [July 31, 2023] on problems no one is calling easy — Fresh #Water News (@WaterEdCO) #COriver #aridification

Rancher Bryan Bernal irrigates a field that depends on Colorado River water near Loma, Colo. Credit: William Woody

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

A new state Colorado River Drought Task Force will meet nine times between now and early December, and hold two public hearings to develop recommendations on how the parched river’s supplies will be managed inside state lines as its flows continue to decline.

At its first meeting Monday [July 31, 2023], 100 people joined the virtual session as the 17-member task force began planning the work it must conclude by Dec. 15.

“We are at a truly historic moment in Colorado River history,” said Kathy Chandler-Henry, an Eagle County Commissioner who is non-voting chair of the group.

“We are tasked with providing recommendations for programs addressing drought in the Colorado River Basin. … It’s a tall order but I am confident we can deliver. … My hope is that we can reach a broad consensus. My concern is the time crunch … 4.5 months in water time is a blink of an eye.”

Lawmakers created the Colorado River Drought Task Force in May when they approved Senate Bill 23-295. The 17-member task force includes representatives of environmental groups, urban and agricultural water users, and the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, among others. Its task: to recommend state legislation that would create new tools and programs to address drought and declining flows on the Colorado River.

The seven-state Colorado River Basin is divided into two regions, with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming comprising the Upper Basin, and Arizona, Nevada and California making up the Lower Basin.

But it is in the Upper Basin and in Colorado, specifically, where roughly two-thirds of its flows originate.

Colorado is home to eight major rivers, four of which are major tributaries to the Colorado River on the West Slope. They are the Yampa/White/Green, the Gunnison, the San Juan/San Miguel/Dolores, and the Colorado River itself.

Four river basins, the Colorado, Yampa/White, Gunnison and Southwest would participate in a demand management program that eventually will include the entire state. Source: Colorado River District

This year, negotiations among the states and the federal government are beginning on how to manage and protect the river now and beyond 2026, when many of the existing Colorado River management agreements expire.

Overuse in the Lower Basin is considered to be the largest issue to resolve, but Upper Basin states may be called on to reduce their agricultural water use as well. One proposal, known as demand management, is to create a new drought pool in Lake Powell by having farmers and ranchers fallow their fields in return for cash payments. And the state’s urban water users may also be called on to cut back.

Colorado water users on the West Slope and Front Range are concerned that changes to the river’s seven-state management system could harm their water rights.

Scott Hummer, water commissioner for District 58 in the Yampa River basin, checks out a recently installed Parshall flume on an irrigation ditch in this August 2020 photo. Compliance with measuring device requirements has been moving more slowly than state engineers would like. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Mike Camblin, a task force member representing agricultural water users, said it would be critical to find ways to ensure farmers’ and ranchers’ lands remain healthy and their operations profitable. Agriculture uses 80% of the Colorado River’s supplies across the basin and the agricultural industry is deeply worried that it will take the hit if and when reductions are required.

“I hope we can come up with a plan. I would hate to see our ancestors cuss us down the road,” Camblin said.

Melissa Youssef, a task force member who is also mayor of Durango, said her city is already seeing its water supplies reduced. She said she was glad to have a seat on the task force and to have a say in how her community should be protected.

“My hope is that we can come together, making our positions abundantly clear. We have senior water rights on two rivers, but we are exposed to a reduction in water supplies through drought,” Youssef said.

Alex Davis, assistant general manager of Aurora Water, is a task force member representing Front Range water users. She said urban reliance on the Colorado River is significant.

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

Roughly half of water supplies for Aurora and Denver, among others, come from the Colorado River.

“My concern is that people will bring very specific agendas from different entities that will benefit their constituents but may not be beneficial to the state as a whole,” she said.

The group will meet at sites around the state, with one meeting each month slated to be in-person and the others designed to be virtual. The next meeting is Aug. 10 in Denver. It is in-person. A location has not yet been determined. All meetings are open to the public.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at or @jerd_smith.

Map credit: AGU

New state task force starts work on responding to worst-case #ColoradoRiver scenarios — #Colorado Public Radio #COriver #aridification

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Public Radio website (Michael Elizabeth Sakas). Here’s an excerpt:

The Colorado state legislature created the task force last year to bring together representatives from agriculture, water managers from Front Range cities and Western Slope towns, environmentalists, Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute representatives and industry. The 17 members will meet 10 times until Dec. 7, when it will submit a report of recommendations to lawmakers ahead of the 2024 legislative session…Colorado’s new task force will consider how the state might be affected if the Colorado River and its reservoirs drop to critically-low levels. The federal government has threatened to step in and make water cuts necessary to prevent that. There’s also concern that, eventually, Colorado and the other upper-basin states— Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — might have to respond to legal challenges if the downstream states — Arizona, Nevada and California — feel they aren’t getting enough water. 

“My greatest fear about the task force is that we know that the lower basin is going to be watching, other states in the Colorado River Basin are watching,” said Lee Miller, general counsel of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “That we don’t give them fuel to divide us more or use it against us in the negotiations for the interim guideline extension.”


Upper Colorado River Commissioner Rebecca Mitchell, who was recently appointed as the state’s first full-time Colorado River representative and negotiator, is a member of a subcommittee that will focus on tribal water issues. 

“I think really my focus is to make sure that as I go into the negotiations, that Colorado stands united, because I think that’s going to be incredibly important,” Mitchell said at the meeting.

She said the current guidelines on how managing the Colorado River and Lake Mead and Lake Powell, “aren’t working for us right now, and they really have not worked for the tribes ever.”

Native America in the Colorado River Basin. Credit: USBR

Southwest states facing tough choices about water as #ColoradoRiver diminishes — CBS News #COriver #aridification

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter:

Click the link to read the article on the CBS News website (Bill Whitaker). Here’s an excerpt:

Brad Udall, a climate scientist at Colorado State University, went out on Lake Powell with us…

Bill Whitaker: So what does this tell you about what’s happening on the Colorado River?

Brad Udall: Well, it’s a signal of the long-term problem we’ve been seeing since the year 2000, which is climate change is reducing the flows of the Colorado significantly…

Brad Udall has strong connections to the river. As secretary of the interior, his uncle, Stewart Udall, opened the Glen Canyon Dam. His father, Congressman Mo Udall, fought to channel river water to Arizona. As a young man, Brad was a Colorado River guide. Today he analyzes the impact of climate change on water resources.  

Bill Whitaker: Is the west on a collision course with climate change?

Brad Udall: In some ways yes, but we have fully utilized this system. We’ve over-allocated it, and we now need to think about how to turn some of this back. ‘Cause the only lever we control right now in the river is the demand lever. We have no control over the supply. So we have to dial back demand.

Seventy percent of Colorado River water goes to agriculture. When the federal government declared the water shortage, it triggered mandatory cutbacks. Pinal County, Arizona got hit hard…

Amelia Flores: All the water users are gonna have to give up something to keep that water in the lake. 

Amelia Flores is chairwoman of The Colorado River Indian Tribes, a reservation of four tribes a few hours west of Phoenix, with the oldest and largest water rights in Arizona. After being moved to reservations, Southwest tribes got rights to about a quarter of the river’s flow, but government red tape and lack of infrastructure have prevented them from using their full allotment. Flores told us until this drought, tribes were never included in water negotiations.  

Bill Whitaker: Why had you not had a seat at the table before this? 

Amelia Flores: Because the tribes have always been overlooked in the policymaking and– and in– in the law of the river. But that day has come to an end.

Native America in the Colorado River Basin. Credit: USBR

Deadpool Diaries: mid-July #ColoradoRiver status report — John Fleck (InkStain) #COriver #aridification

Ringside seats to the decline of Lake Mead. Sometimes all we can do is sit and watch and wonder. Credit: InkStain

Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (John Fleck):

When last we visited, Lake Mead sat at elevation 1,054.28 feet above sea level. It’s now at 1,058.34, which is up ~13 feet from when I took the above photo last December.

I hope they moved those chairs.

The good news is the current forecast calling for the combined storage of Lake Mead and Lake Powell to end the water year up nearly 5 million acre feet from a year ago.

The bad news is that total identifiable water use reductions in this year of chaotic crisis fire drill total just 1.2 million acre feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s July 14, 2023 forecast.

This is not enough.

Who’s Using What?

Kudos to Southern Nevada, which at ~202kaf is on track for its lowest take on the Colorado River since 1992. Clark County’s population has nearly tripled in that time.

At ~860kaf, the Central Arizona Project is on track to make its lowest draw on the Colorado River since 1995.

At ~803kaf, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s forecast draw on the river is taking 12.5 percent less than its average over the last decade, but Met is weird because of California State Water Project wet year chaos, so I’m not sure I fully understand what they’re up to. (Jump in the comments and explain, Met friends!)

The Imperial Irrigation District is forecast to take ~2.5maf from the river this year, which is basically unchanged from its use over the previous decade.

What is Needed

The analysis by Jack Schmidt et al suggests that, based on 21st century hydrology, we need to cut 1.5 million acre feet per year just to stabilize the system. If we want to actually refill a bit, to provide cushion against the sort of catastrophe that was narrowly averted this year by a big snowpack, the cuts need to be even deeper.

Four decades of dithering, with the last big snowpack circled in red.

The above graph from their paper shows the problem. I’ve circled the last big snowpack year in red, and you can see the others as well. Every time we got bonus water, we just used it.

We need to avoid making that mistake again.


A big thanks to friends of Inkstain for helping support this work.

Exit interview: As @DenverWater CEO Jim Lochhead steps down, his fascination with the #ColoradoRiver continues — Fresh Water News @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification

Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead at the Hydro building on the new CSU Spur Campus at the National Western Stock Show complex in Denver in January. Courtesy: Denver Water

Click the link to read the article on the Fresh Water News website (Jerd Smith):

Veteran Colorado water attorney Jim Lochhead has been part of most of the history-making Colorado River deals crafted over the last 30 years including California’s landmark 2003 quantification settlement agreement, where the state famously agreed to cut back its overuse of the Colorado River. For decades, he advised state and local agencies on Colorado River issues. He also served as head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources under Gov. Roy Romer from 1994 to 1998.

But in 2010 he moved into a decidedly different role: running Denver Water, a 1,200-employee agency that serves more than 1.5 million customers in the Denver metro area and which operates as an independent government agency.

Under his leadership, Denver Water launched a major capital investment program, which included a new, hyper-green operations complex. It built a new water treatment plant and battled on many fronts to launch a controversial expansion of Gross Reservoir. The agency also launched one of the largest lead pipe replacement programs in the country.

Lochhead, who announced he was leaving Denver Water in December, has a departure date of Aug. 7.  Alan Salazar, chief of staff for the city of Denver, will take over as interim CEO for the next year, until a permanent hire is made.

But is Lochhead, 71, planning to retire? Not just yet. See what this high-profile water veteran has to say about the state of the Colorado River these days and what his future may hold.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Question: Why leave now, when issues on the Colorado River are just getting interesting?

Answer: I think as a CEO you need to realize what your shelf life is. I’ve accomplished what I was hired to do. When I came, Denver Water was right in the middle of negotiating the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement [a deal that resolved many, though not all, conflicts between West Slope Colorado River water users and those on the Front Range, including Denver.]

I was really brought in to move Denver Water forward in terms of being a trusted leader in the water industry and in serving customers, and to focus us on the sustainability of our water supply and the health of our watersheds. I’d like to leave Denver Water in a good place, and I feel like we’re in good a place.

Question: This summer critical negotiations begin on how to operate the Colorado River system and the two major reservoirs on the river, lakes Powell and Mead, in ways that stop overuse and allow the system to operate more efficiently. Have you heard any great ideas that you think would solve its problems?

From the 2018 Tribal Water Study, this graphic shows the location of the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Map credit: USBR

Answer: Unfortunately, no. What we need is a path forward that includes the tribes in the basin. We need a process that is not so onerous for participants so that we can collaborate and come to solutions. It’s going to require tremendous leadership.

Question: Lakes Powell and Mead operate under different agencies, in some cases use different calendars, and serve different regions. Some have suggested that the two lakes should be operated as one, to simplify management and improve operational efficiencies. Do you support this idea?

Answer: It’s worth exploring. We need to be looking at totally different ideas about how the system is managed.

Question: Others have suggested that any new reservoirs or dams should be stopped, that the seven-state Colorado River Basin should be closed to new water development. What are your thoughts on this?

Answer: I don’t even know how you would do that. There is no authority. In Colorado [and the other Upper Basin states of New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming] the prior appropriation system is self-limiting. [The system delivers water in times of scarcity based on which water right is the oldest. Any newly claimed water rights, in practicality, would never receive water.] All of our rivers are over-appropriated. If you are going to do something new you have to buy an existing water right. You would just be shifting use between sectors.

And in the Lower Basin [Arizona, California and Nevada] the amount of water that is taken is limited by contract and federal law to 4.4 million acre-feet in California, 2.8 million acre-feet in Arizona, 300,0000 in Nevada and 1.5 million acre-feet in Mexico. The big problem is that river [transit] losses and evaporation sit on top of all of that.

Question: Farms and ranches use as much as 80% of the water in the Colorado River Basin. What could be done to reduce agricultural water use while protecting the farm economies and food supplies?

Answer: The fundamental dilemma that we have is the conflict between the priority dates of long-established irrigation districts in the Lower Basin and the Upper Basin under the priority system, versus new development and growth that is occurring that is junior in priority.

If we strictly went by those priorities, you would literally be cutting off the Central Arizona Project, as well as Las Vegas, Denver and the Metropolitan Water District [of Southern California]. That’s just not going to happen. So how do we equitably manage through that dilemma, so that ag economies and the communities that have grown to depend on those priorities grow and can rely on that supply? And how do we have security of water for the 40 million people who live in this basin?

It is going to result in a shift of waters. The Lower Basin has asked for $1.2 billion to reduce demands. I don’t have a silver bullet, but to me that is the heart of the negotiation that is going to have to occur.

Question: A number of people have suggested that a new forum of some kind needs to be created to help solve the Colorado River’s problems now. You’ve said that you don’t plan to retire. If you were offered the opportunity to run that new entity, would you take it?

Answer: Going out to pasture is not my nature. I would have to think about it. I would love to stay involved.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at or @jerd_smith.

Map credit: AGU

Freeing up #ColoradoRiver water from #California farms will take more than just money, just ask the farmers — KUNC #COriver #aridification

The Salton Sea (pictured above ) straddles the Imperial and Coachella valleys and has long been a sticking point in Colorado River deals. But the federal government recently committed up to $250 million for restoration efforts at the sea. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:

The Imperial Valley produces $2.9 billion in crops and livestock each year. That’s because the valley’s Imperial Irrigation District (IID) holds the largest single allocation of Colorado River water – bigger than any other farming district or city between Wyoming and Mexico. But now, that water allocation is under increasing scrutiny from water managers looking to cut back on water use and correct a perilous gap between supply and demand on the Colorado River. The valley’s farmers are bound together by IID. The body represents growers in negotiations about water rights and wields a tremendous amount of clout. California’s share of Colorado River water is larger than any other state, and about 70% of it is earmarked for IID…

A field of produce destined for grocery stores is irrigated near Yuma, Ariz., a few days before Christmas 2015. Photo/Allen Best – See more at:

Imperial Valley growers often court criticism for the amount of water they use, but are quick to assert just what they do with it – grow a sizable portion of America’s vegetables. Estimates vary because Imperial’s greens are packaged and counted alongside veggies from other nearby regions, but around 90% of the nation’s leafy greens sold in the winter are grown with Colorado River water between a few valleys in California, Arizona and Mexico. Imperial contributes a large portion of that…

[Jack] Vessey and his peers are also churning out fields of alfalfa hay, a particularly thirsty crop fed to cattle. Vessey said alfalfa is an important piece of his growing portfolio, and can be planted when fields need a break between seasons of leafy greens better suited for human consumption. Alfalfa growth in the Imperial Valley and elsewhere across the river basin has drawn widespread criticism. Cities under pressure to use Colorado River water more judiciously are quick to point out that about 80% of the river’s water is used for agriculture, and some critics point to alfalfa as a glaringly inefficient use within that sector. The Colorado River basin as a whole ships an estimated $880 million of hay overseas each year, with most going to China, Japan and Saudi Arabia…

[John] Hawk’s sentiment is a common one around these parts. Conservation takes a backseat to the bottom line. New technologies and methods exist that could help farmers like Hawk cut back on water use, but there’s little incentive to install them without money on the table…Hawk argued that even compensated cuts would be painful – threatening local jobs and risking an increase to the cost of vegetables and the cost of beef and dairy produced with the help of Imperial hay…[Michael] Cohen is skeptical that drip irrigation could serve as a silver bullet for agencies looking to squeeze some extra water out of the Imperial Valley, and expects farmers would bristle at programs that incentivize them to fallow their fields – pausing or permanently stopping growth in some areas. The next frontier, he said, is shifting to different types of crops, exploring alternatives to alfalfa and other similar water-intensive grasses. That’s a process that could see some of the Colorado River’s biggest tensions play out in the grocery aisle.

Map credit: AGU

Romancing the River: The First Peoples, Part 1 — Sibley’s Rivers #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):

If you are following the ever-unfolding sagas of the Colorado River in the 21st century, the Early Anthropocene, you are probably aware that there are water-related issues with the 30 remaining First Peoples living within the Colorado River Basin.

I’ll say, to start, that I don’t like to call the 574 recognized First Peoples in the United States and Alaska ‘Indians’ (colonizing and homogenizing term, inaccurate too), ‘American Indians’ (two Eurocentric colonizing words), or ‘Native Americans’ (anyone born here is a ‘native’). I prefer to think of them as ‘First People’ for a couple reasons. First, because many of the groups tend to call themselves ‘the people’ – Dine’e, the name the Navajos give themselves translates as ‘the people.’ Navajo, on the other hand, is from a Tewa People word meaning ‘planted field,’ hardly descriptive of a people still ambivalent about farming as a way of life. The Apaches call themselves Ndee, which translates as ‘the people’; but Apache is from the Zuni People’s word for ‘enemy.’ Just as Comanche comes from a Ute People’s word for ‘one who fights with me,’ while to themselves the Comanche are the Numinu, which translates as – you guessed it: ‘the people.’ These are more precise and intimate designations than ‘we the people’ in our constitution.

A second reason for calling them the First Peoples is to remind myself that they were in fact here first. They were not ‘civilized’ enough to understand the fundamental holy sanctity of private property, money, or anything else held sacred among the civilized people that overran them. Had they understood those things, and had prior appropriation doctrines in place, and the unified capability to enforce such doctrines, as we try to have in place now for selecting our immigrants – and also had a medical establishment capable of developing vaccines against strange microscopic invaders – then the history of the European Expansion into America would probably have been a little more humble than it has been. And the recent histories of the First Peoples, the people here first, might have been less traumatic and tragic.

This is a relevant topic at this point since the remaining First Peoples in the Colorado River region have made the mainstream news, at least in the West, twice just recently on water-related issues. One was a decision by the Red Meanies that are now the voice of The Supremes, singing their chorus on the power of power; they declared that, while the federal government acknowledges that the Navajo People are entitled to water for their reservation, the 1868 treaty with them contains no explicit responsibility to ‘act affirmatively’ in helping them develop or even lay claim to that water.

The other news story was reported from a conference at the Getches-Wilkinson Law Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder; 13 leaders from the 30 remaining First Peoples on reservations in the Colorado River Basin took the stage in a panel to convey the message that they will participate in the negotiations getting underway about the management of the Colorado River and its waters after 2026 and the expiring of the ‘Interim Guidelines,’ which are now proving as ineffective as the Colorado River Compact they were created to supplement.

There is, as usual, a lot more back story to these things than makes it into the news. And without at least some of the back story, the news stories make less sense. One thing to keep in mind is how ‘distinct’ the remaining 29 First Peoples in the Colorado River Basin are (like most of the 574 recognized First Peoples in the United States and Alaska). While the officially registered populations of each of the First Peoples range from a few hundred members to hundreds of thousands, each People has its own culture – an internal economy and polity that is more likely to be socialistic than individualistic, animistic spiritual practices that are closely associated with their living environment, a higher ratio of familial education (father to son, mother to daughter) to formal schooling, and often a unique language for only a few thousand people, or variations on a language common to several Peoples in the same region. These groups historically communicated with each other, traded with each other, and occasionally fought each other. Some who shared the same or similar languages would winter together in big encampments – one consequence of which was keeping their gene pools healthy with new input, new husbands usually joining their wive’s clans. But despite such interactions, they also retained their unique and distinguishing cultural characteristics. Many of these cultures are similar in their fundamentals, but they make serious efforts to retain the elements that distinguish them. These unique and passionately maintained distinctive cultures have been difficult for us dominating e pluribus unum Euro-Americans to comprehend and accept.

Adding to that difficulty is the extent to which the First Peoples throughout the Colorado River region were, at the time of contact with Euro-Americans, at different stages in adapting to the ‘trauma of success’ – the population expansions that occurred globally as the harsh Pleistocene climate mellowed into the warmer, wetter, more life-supporting Holocene interval. Expanding hunter-forager populations needed more territory.

That territorial tension was resolved – or not resolved – two different ways by the First Peoples, as it had been millennia before in Europe and western Asia. Some of the Peoples developed a culture of conflict with neighboring Peoples, cultivating warrior cultures engaged in fighting and raiding – as Steven LeBlanc documented in his Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest. Other Peoples gave up the hunter-forager life and transitioned to agriculture, concentrating their food plants and animal herds where they could be protected against the raiders. This also concentrated and stabilized the way they lived, the kind of structures they built to live in, the kinds of trading and commerce they engaged in. And pressure from the raiding Peoples also shaped the way they lived; some of those early conflicts are remembered in intertribal relations among First Peoples today.

Screen shot from episode of “Tom Talks” April 2020.

Populations continued to grow, especially with agricultural surpluses, and the ongoing ‘trauma of success’ forced some of the Peoples to develop even more complex socioeconomic organizations for production and distribution of food and other survival goods – what we call the urbanizing ‘civilization’ stage in human culture. Two civilizations-scale cultures developed in the Precolumbian Colorado River Basin: one was the ‘Ancestral Puebloans’ who developed a highly integrated system of villages linked through storing and trading of grain and other resources in the San Juan River valleys, centered in the broad Chaco Canyon. The other was the Hohokam (or Huhugam) irrigation society in the confluence area of the Salt and Gila Rivers in present-day central Arizona. The Hohokam People’s irrigation system had a high degree of sophistication, considering that its irrigation systems were all dug with stick-and-stone tools and baskets. They also had a sizable urban center whose ruins have been preserved in (and dwarfed by) present-day downtown Phoenix.

By the time the Euro-American settlers and unsettlers arrived in the Colorado basin, though, these civilizations, like all historical civilizations globally to this point, had collapsed from their own density, complexity and the depletion of vital resources. Those who survived the chaos of the collapses dropped back to some earlier stage in that cultural evolution driven by population. Some refugees from the Ancestral Puebloans’ Chaco Canyon ‘Interconnect’ left the Colorado Basin and went to the Rio Grande valley to continue farming; others found remote spots in the San Juan tributaries. Several First Peoples from the Hohokam Culture relocated along the Gila, Salt and Colorado Rivers and continued irrigated farming on a small scale.

And because not everyone is temperamentally fit for agriculture, some of the collapse refugees went all the way back to the hunter-forager life – with raiding each other and the agricultural Peoples added to the repertoire. The bands of Utes in the Southern Rocky mountains showed up around the same time that the Chaco Canyon Interconnect was falling apart, and the Apache Peoples in the Arizona and New Mexico mountains expanded following the Hohokam collapse.

And then there were ‘newcomers,’ the Dine’e People, the ones the other Peoples called the Navajo. They were hunter-foragers filtering down all the way from Canada’s over-populating Athabaskan lake region. They began arriving in the Colorado River region about the time that the Chaco Canyon Interconnect began to fail, and were still trickling in till just a few centuries before the Spanish-Americans came into the region. The Navajo brought domesticated sheep with them, and followed their sheep around the valleys and uplands of the depopulating San Juan basin and Colorado Plateau, adapting their hunting and foraging skills in a new environment – and also joining in on the raiding that had become part of that way of life.

So the Euro-Americans encountered almost the full spectrum of human cultural evolution when they arrived in the Colorado River basin, except for an active civilization. They found primal First Peoples like the Cocopah down in the delta and some of the southern Great Basin Paiutes on the Colorado Plateau, still primarily hunting and foraging but also beginning to practice some basic agriculture. There were also post-civilization First Peoples like the Salt River Pima-Maricopa, the Gila River and the Colorado River Peoples with long histories of desert agriculture, and there were both pre- and post-civilization hunter-forager-raiders.

The European Expansion came to the Colorado River region first from the south, where Spanish invaders had conquered civilized Aztec Mexico early in the 16th century; exploratory parties went northward in search of gold and silver and laid claim to everything up to around the 40th parallel, but only really settled – and unsettled – in the middle Rio Grande valleys and California. Their interest in the First Peoples they encountered was limited to whatever material wealth they could commandeer in the name of the King; they did not appear to see the people themselves as fellow humans, but as simple savages to convert and enslave.

The First Peoples they encountered, on the other hand, became very interested in the horses the Spanish brought, some which went feral and, along with European germs, spread out ahead of the Spanish. The hunter-forager-raider Peoples quickly developed a horse culture and expanded both their range and their daring; they began to harass the new white settlers as well as each other.

The Spanish Americans lost their El Norte empire in the 1846-48 Mexican War, which opened the whole Southwest up to the larger Euro-American westward expansion. The Spanish had wanted the First Peoples as slaves; the Euro-Americans just wanted them out of the way. Skirmishes between the warrior/raiders of the First Peoples, armed at first with stone age weaponry, and the heavily armed U.S. Cavalry escalated into a multi-fronted three-decade war from the end of the Civil War to nearly the turn of the 20th century.

From the perspective of many prominent 19th-century western leaders – like Col. John Chivington, Methodist minister, Masonic Grand Master, and leader of 300 volunteers in the Sand Creek Massacre – genocide would not have been too strong a word for their objective; they wanted to rid the land of those who were there first and in the way of their Manifest Destiny to subdue the continent. Cooler heads prevailed in Washington, however, and the ultimate objective of ‘Indian policy’ came to be forced assimilation: instead of ‘kill the Indians,’ it was ‘kill the Indian, save the man (woman or child).’

The First Peoples one by one accepted ‘offers they could not refuse,’ to give up most of their traditional territory in exchange for a much smaller reservation, peace, and generally vague promises of federal assistance ‘to change their habits and to become a pastoral and civilized people’ – which some of them already were, perhaps moreso than many of the Euro-Americans.

To facilitate that assimilation, children as young as six were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools where they were forbidden to use their native language, and were schooled in becoming good industrial workers. To teach a proper respect for private property, the Dawes Act in 1887 broke up the reservations into 160-acre ‘homesteads.’ Programs were implemented to pay for the relocation of individuals and families to cities. Only the vast scale of the West and the limited number of policy enforcers for the numerous reservations enabled the First Peoples to keep their own cultural fires banked but burning.

This policy of forced assimilation prevailed until the 1930s. Current news stories about Colorado River issues have noted with righteous indignation that the Colorado River Compact ‘ignored the Indians,’ but that is not exactly the case; Article VII of the Compact says that ‘Nothing in this compact shall be construed as affecting the obligations of the United States of America to Indian tribes.’ In 1922, the ‘obligations to the Indian tribes’ were still construed to be facilitating their conversion to ‘civilized peoples.’ This essentially meant letting the tribes ‘disappear’ as the First Peoples discovered the blessings and advantages of assimilating into the mainstream culture, which would have negated the question of tribal waters. E pluribus unum.

It is probably important to remember that these assimilationist policies were not conceived and put into force by evil people, but by well-meaning Christians who sincerely believed they were acting in the best interests of the First Peoples; if the First Peoples had to be forced, it was because they were blind to their own best interests. Historically many bad things have come as consequences of good but naive intentions.

This was demonstrated just last month, when the constitutionality of a law intended to shut down one of the assimilationist strategies was challenged in the courts – the Indian Child Welfare Act, which put First People families first in line for adopting orphaned or abandoned First People children. Surely this is racist, was the argument against the Act; isn’t it obvious that it would be better for a child to grow up well provided for in a good middle-class home, rather than left on an impoverished reservation with an aunt or grandparent? The Supremes – a little surprisingly – upheld the Act, 7-2, against the suit brought by several ‘red’ states, but the well-meaning will continue to act in what they perceive to be the best interests of those who were here first.

That is a good place to pause; next post we’ll look at how things began to turn around for the First Peoples – how they themselves worked, and continue to work, to turn things around, and found co-conspirators in the larger society, even in the government. What’s the saying? What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. And the First Peoples have survived the efforts to kill them, first physically then culturally, and are here to stay – and to be heard on our common future.

Stay tuned for Part 2, when we will look more closely at the Navajo decision, and at some things the First Peoples might contribute to the next chapters in the management of our coyote river.

Native land loss 1776 to 1930. Credit: Alvin Chang/Ranjani Chakraborty

Federal, state officials promise more tribal inclusion in #ColoradoRiver negotiations: Tribes say structural inclusion is key — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification

Lake Nighthorse, near Durango, Colorado on May 26, 2023. Both of Colorado’s tribes, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Utes have water in Lake Nighthorse they haven’t been able to access. CREDIT: MITCH TOBIN/THE WATER DESK

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

Federal and state officials have promised more tribal inclusion on the next round of negotiating the operating guidelines for the Colorado River, but what exactly that will look like is still unclear.

On June 16, the Bureau of Reclamation released a notice of intent (NOI), which formally advanced the process for the development of new operating guidelines for the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. In the document, Reclamation says that during the upcoming guidelines negotiations, it intends to develop an approach that facilitates and enhances tribal engagement and inclusivity. Officials say they will also prioritize regular, meaningful and robust consultation with tribal nations.

“Existing forums and groups will be continued and leveraged, such as the monthly Reclamation-hosted Tribal Information Exchanges,” the NOI reads. “Reclamation is also exploring options for increasing tribal involvement through the potential development of new groups and forums.”

Tribes have historically been largely excluded from policy talks and some have said they only learn about decisions made by the seven states and federal government after the fact.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton previewed the NOI the week before it was released, speaking at a law conference on natural resources at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“We are looking to stand up a forum in which we are engaging with tribal nations,” she said. “There will be a specific framework how we engage with the tribes.”

A Reclamation spokesperson said they don’t have any details to add at this time about what the framework will look like beyond Touton’s comments.

From the 2018 Tribal Water Study, this graphic shows the location of the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Map credit: USBR

The Colorado River basin’s 30 tribes have rights to use about 25% of the water, a percentage that is slowly increasing as river flows decline overall due to drought and climate change. And most of their rights are senior to nearly all other water users in the basin.

Although they were not included in the Colorado River Compact that divided the river, giving half of the flows to the upper basin and half to the lower basin, the 1908 Winters Doctrine reserved water rights for tribes. The doctrine established tribes’ water rights on the same date the federal government established their reservation, but not the amount of water to which they were entitled.

Tribes have had to quantify and settle their water rights within their states and tribal water comes out of each state’s allocation from the Colorado River. Unlike other water users, tribes don’t have to put the water to beneficial use to hang onto the rights for future development. That means there are unquantified water rights out there on paper that have never been used, although some tribes say they still fully intend to develop their water.

But in an already over-allocated system, any new water project that takes more from the Colorado River could be problematic. Tribes’ unused water has been propping up the system for years, and when finally put to beneficial use, it could exacerbate shortages for other water users.

“Water that is undeveloped tribal water rights is sitting in Powell and being used in some way, shape or form at some point,” said Becky Mitchell, commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission. “Somebody else is benefiting from it. Who benefits from continuing the way that we have, that’s the question we need to ask ourselves.”

Lake Nighthorse, near Durango, Colorado on May 26, 2023. Bureau of Reclamation officials have promised more tribal inclusion in the negotiation of the post-2026 reservoir operating guidelines. Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk CREDIT: MITCH TOBIN/THE WATER DESK

Structural inclusion

The seven basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, California, Arizona and Nevada — negotiated the current interim guidelines for reservoir operations in 2007, and the guidelines are set to expire at the end of 2026. Developed in response to drought conditions in the first years of the century, the 2007 guidelines set shortage tiers based on reservoir levels and spelled out which states in the lower basin would take shortages and by how much their water deliveries would be cut in dry years.

Every component of the 2007 guidelines — and then some — is up for renegotiation as water managers figure out river management post-2026, said Anne Castle, a federal appointee and chair of the Upper Colorado River Commission. Castle is also on the leadership team for the Colorado River Basin Water & Tribes Initiative.

“There’s also discussion about broadening the scope of what will be considered in this set of guidelines,” she said. “That could include environmental benefit for the river. It could include development of undeveloped tribal rights. It could include a number of things that have not been previously part of the river operations plumbing discussion.”

One thing on which many agree is the need for tribes’ structural inclusion, meaning their seat at the table will be formally guaranteed and won’t be dependent on the promises of individual state or federal officials who could be replaced at the whims of a new administration. Tribal inclusion was a focus of the CU conference and included a panel discussion with representatives of 14 of the 30 tribes from across the basin.

“We really want tribes to be part of the negotiations and the discussions and the development of the post-2026 operational guidelines and we want this to be institutionalized as well,” Lorelei Cloud, vice chair of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in southwestern Colorado, said as a panelist at the CU conference.

“Having a formal process is what’s needed,” said Cloud, a director on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, representing the San Miguel/Dolores/Animas and San Juan river basins. “It didn’t happen in 1922 or before, so we know it really needs to be in writing as we go forward.”

USBR Commissioner Touton giving a diplomatic speech at Getches-Wilkinson/Water and Tribes Initiative conference, outlining the ongoing federal spending and the upcoming SEIS revisions. One big upshot from her: There’s no reason to believe this winter wasn’t a “one-off.” Photo credit: Kyle Roerink via Twitter

How to do it

Each tribe is a sovereign government with their own unique water issues, which creates challenges when trying to include everyone.

“If you know one tribe, you know one tribe,” said Daryl Vigil, co-director of the Water & Tribes Initiative, water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation and panel moderator at the CU conference. “To think there’s an Indian solution really dishonors that individuality and uniqueness of those tribes.”

In 2020, the Water & Tribes Initiative released a report called “Toward a Sense of the Basin: Designing a Collaborative Process to Develop the Next Set of Guidelines for the Colorado River System.” In it, the report’s writers set out potential options for tribal participation, including a Sovereign Review Team (SRT) and a Tribal Advisory Council (TAC). An SRT would consist of federal, state and tribal representatives; would treat tribes as equal players with the states and federal government; and would be an advisory group and the main forum to receive input from stakeholders and the public. A TAC would include representatives from each of the 30 tribes in the basin.

“One of the real issues is how do you choose tribal representatives that would represent more than their own tribe. That’s very problematic,” Castle said. “But at the same time, it’s recognized that having representatives of seven states and 30 tribes sitting in a room is a logistical problem and difficult to have meaningful discussions with that many people. There are logistical issues that need to be talked about further and worked out.”

Representatives from the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) and upper basin tribes have been meeting over the past year, usually on tribal territory, partly in an effort to strengthen relationships between water managers. Vigil said that representatives from the group of 14 tribes, known as the basin tribal coalition, have also been meeting over the past year with the seven basin states to talk about collaboration. He said his hope is that tribes will also have to be signatories, along with the seven basin states and the federal government, on governing policy documents — such as the post-2026 guidelines — regarding river operations.

“Tribes understand that this is probably one of the most important components in terms of the forward movement of water policy in the basin: to have structural inclusion in the decision-making process,” he said.

Mitchell said tribal inclusion and engagement is a top priority for her going into the negotiations. Her commitment to the tribes includes communication, consultation and coordination on decision-making, she said.

“I view their involvement as critical and imperative to the success of the post-2026 reservoir operations negotiations,” Mitchell said. “It’s no secret when the compact was signed in 1922, no tribes were involved, consulted or even informed. I cannot alone correct that, but we can do better and we should do better, and we have a responsibility to do better.”

Colorado has two tribal nations, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Utes. They both settled their water rights with the state in 1986. But that doesn’t mean they can put their water to beneficial use. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe has about 38,000 acre-feet of stored water for municipal and industrial use in Lake Nighthorse, part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Animas-La Plata project. But because of a lack of infrastructure and high operation and maintenance costs, they haven’t been able to access it.

“In a perfect world, I want to see the federal government fulfill its obligations to the tribal nations,” Mitchell said. “That includes its responsibility to consult with the tribes on a sovereign to sovereign basis and to support the tribes in accessing and utilizing their water resources.”

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Native land loss 1776 to 1930. Credit: Alvin Chang/Ranjani Chakraborty

Beyond 2026: Governance for the #ColoradoRiver in the #Anthropocene — Sibley’s Rivers #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):

The graph above is from a study released a couple weeks ago, mid-June, on ‘The Colorado River Water Crisis: Its Origin and the Future,’ authored by two elders of Colorado River affairs: Dr. John Schmidt, river scientist at Utah State University, and Eric Kuhn, longtime manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, now retired; both are deeply immersed in the river’s issues, and committed to working through the current crisis to a more reality-based future for the river and those who use its waters. A third author is Charles Yackulic, a noted scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, but not so well known in Colorado River matters. When Jack Schmidt and Eric Kuhn speak about the river, everyone listens – especially when they speak together.

This graph alone explains a lot of the pain and anxiety we’ve been experiencing, and anticipating experiencing, in the Colorado River region – the natural basin plus technological out-of-basin extensions. (Sometimes the anticipation of pain can be more painful than the actual eventuality – try to think ‘dead pool’ without a serious twitch.)

The black line meandering through the graph is a smoothing curve tracing the general up-or-down-and-how-far of the erratic annual flows of the river (the little black dots peppered all over the graph). But the genius of their analysis is in the three horizontal lines. They’ve divided the 117 years for which we have some semblance of measures for Colorado River’s flows into three fairly distinct periods: The Early 20th-Century Pluvial (two-bit word for ‘really wet period’) when the river averaged almost 18 million acre-feet a year (maf/yr) for a quarter-century; then the six-decade Mid to Late Century period when the river averaged 14.3 maf/yr; and then what they’ve chosen to call the Millennium Drought in which the river has only averaged flows of 12.5 maf/yr. (I would just call it ‘The Anthropocene.’)

Eugene Clyde LaRue measuring the flow in Nankoweap Creek, 1923. Photo credit: USGS

In terms of flow, that might be three different rivers. The large-scale management of the Colorado River began with the Colorado River Compact in 1922, created just past the peak of the Early 20th-century Pluvial; it was written for the ‘first river,’ as it was then. It’s true there were scientists like E.C. ReRue saying that tree rings indicated that the pluvial period was highly unusual, and 12-13 maf might be a better average flow when the river had a lot of pooled up storage and irrigation water spread out to dry under the desert sun…. But try telling that dour perception to a bunch of engineers and city-builders in the Early Anthropocene, sitting with their new-fangled bulldozers idling on the banks of a wild river running 18 maf a year….

As the river slipped into the severe drought of the 1930s, and the rest of the 20th century where the average flow was less than the 15 maf that had been divided in the Compact, to say nothing of the 1.5 maf for Mexico, it still seemed possible, with the addition of new elements in what became known as ‘The Law of the River,’ to continue governing that ‘second river’ more or less by the Compact. But it was an increasingly shaky situation, saved mostly by the fact that the Upper Basin states were using quite a bit less than their 7.5 maf/yr, and the water they weren’t using was pooled up in not one but two huge reservoirs that were occasionally both full.

But when the Millennial Drought struck just after the turn of the century, the ‘third river’ was born, its flows 40 percent lower than those of the ‘first river,’ things began to fall apart….

It’s interesting that the publication of this study more or less coincided with news releases about the official beginning of meetings to work out a new management regime for the Colorado River, to be in place by the end of 2026. There is nothing mystical or even historical about the choice of 2026 for this; the date stems from the fact that, early in what Schmidt, Kuhn and Yockulic call the ‘Millennial Drought,’ the managers of the Colorado River storage and delivery systems realized they were in trouble. After a really bad water year in 2002, followed by half a decade of mediocre-to-pretty-bad water years, storage in the River’s two big ‘fail safe’ reservoirs had dropped from near-full in 2001 to half-full. So the managers gathered in 2006 to work on new river management stratagems – beginning by creating ‘Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead’; the ‘interim’ for the Interim Guidelines would be two decades, to 2026, at which time they planned, or at least hoped, to have a new river management plan.

Management for all three of the rivers portrayed on the graph has been done under the auspices of ‘The Law of the River,’ the bag of compacts, treaties, laws, court decisions, state resolutions, federal regulations and other elements, that have accumulated over the past century around the original 1922 Colorado River Compact, to clarify, interpret, legislate, and otherwise support the Compact. The ‘Interim Guidelines’ went into the bag with the rest of the Law of the River – as did a set of Drought Contingency Plans (Upper and Lower Basins) in 2019.

But now – practically on the eve of 2026 – storage has continued to drop so alarmingly in the Mead and Powell Reservoirs, despite cuts in consumptive use under the Interim Guidelines, that last summer the Bureau of Reclamation and Interior Department issued a semi-panicky mandate that, to fend off the possibility of going to dead pool in the big reservoirs, it would be necessary to cut consumptive uses much more – by 2-4 maf/yr, a huge cut.

This has engendered several plans, the most popular of which would produce a reduction of three maf over three years – only half of the Bureau’s minimum request – and would require the federal government to pay $1.2 billion to get it done. This plan will probably be accepted, however, even though it too may prove insufficient to get us on to 2026, partly because any of the other plans would probably end up in court for the next decade, and partly because we just had a big fat pluvialish year of snow in the mountains that will give a stay to the increasingly scary decline in the big reservoirs.

This new agreement to reduce use will go in the bag along with the rest of the Law of the River. The question then becomes – what will happen in 2026? Will we just be adding another set of patches, bandaids and crutches to the Law of the River bag, to keep the 1922 Colorado River Compact propped up and somewhat afloat?

Crested Butte

When I think of the Colorado River Compact today, I think of the 1950 Chevy I bought for $50 in 1970-something from an old guy in Crested Butte. After driving it for a couple years, it started running worse than usual, so I took it to the garage to see what the mechanic recommended.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘if it was mine, I’d jack up the radiator cap and put a better car under it.’

That wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. And there are still a lot of people who think the Colorado River Compact is still just fine, with a little help from the Law of the River bag of tricks. People who say it would be impossible to replace the Compact, and don’t want to hear of it.

But look at the graph. The Colorado River Compact was written for a river that for a quarter century was running an average of 17.9 maf. Now it is a considerably different river. There is one sentence in the Colorado River Compact we ought to revisit – its first sentence:

“The major purposes of this compact are to provide for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters of the Colorado River System; to establish the relative importance of different beneficial uses of water, to promote interstate comity; to remove causes of present and future controversies; and to secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin, the storage of its waters, and the protection of life and property from floods.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Compact for managing the river we have now that did all of those things? The 1922 Compact really only fulfilled the fourth objective; it sufficed to ‘secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin,’ so long as Congress was willing to ignore that there was ‘interstate comity’ with only six of the seven states, and there were plenty of ‘present and future controversies’ lurking in the wings.

The commissioners had also failed in their original intentions for ‘providing for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters’. What they had wanted to do was to effect a seven-way division of the river so that each state would know that, when it was ready to go into super-growth mode like California already was, there would be water for them to develop. Essentially, they wanted to abrogate the appropriation doctrine at the interstate level, so that one state (California) could not preclude development in the other states.

They spent most of their first week of compact commission meetings trying to work out that seven-state division, but they were all so full of their own big dreams that it would have required a couple ‘first rivers’ to fulfill their hopes. The two-basin division of the river they eventually settled on sufficed to get the Boulder Canyon Project underway, but was not what they had hoped to do. It did give the Upper Basin states a temporary sense of relief, until the drought of the 1930s made them realize the implications of the ‘shall not cause the flow to be depleted below’ clause, which afforded plenty of potential future controversies; the Lower Basin states, meanwhile, found immediate cause for controversy, with Arizona soon suing California.

All of this makes me think it may be time to, as it were, jack up the first sentence of the existing Compact, and create a new Compact to put under it, one that actually accomplishes the three worthy stated objectives that remain unfulfilled.

Also in the news last week was the announcement that The Supremes, our jolly kick-ass band of judicial activists, have delivered another kick to some of the First People in the Colorado River basin. We’ll begin to delve into that in the next post here….

Map credit: AGU

Tribes seek greater involvement in talks on #ColoradoRiver #water crisis — The Los Angeles Times #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River cuts through Lees Ferry in the Navajo Nation en route to the Grand Canyon. Photo credit. Gonzo fan2007 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Click the link to read the article on the Los Angeles Times website (Ian James). Here’s an excerpt:

Leaders of several tribes say they continue to be left out of key talks between state and federal officials, and they are demanding inclusion as the Biden administration begins the process of developing new rules for dealing with shortages after 2026, when the current rules are set to expire.

Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis advocates early engagement of tribes in the decision-making process. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

“They’ve met, they’ve discussed, they’ve made decisions that we only find out afterwards,” said Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, leader of the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona. “And the 30 tribes — and I’ve heard this from my fellow tribal leaders — they are very frustrated by that, especially as we look at a post-2026 process moving forward.”

During the upcoming talks, Lewis said he and other Native leaders want to see the federal government include representatives of the 30 tribes whenever they convene a meeting with all seven states. He said this approach wouldn’t stop state representatives from meeting among themselves. Lewis raised the concern at a conference in Boulder, Colo., last week, saying that as work begins on a post-2026 plan, “it’s no longer acceptable for the U.S. to meet with seven basin states separately, and then come to basin tribes, after the fact.” He said when leaders of the tribes met with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland last year, she made a commitment “that we would be at the table when these highest-level decisions were being made.”


The Interior Department said the process of developing new rules to replace the 2007 guidelines will involve “robust collaboration” between the seven states, tribes, other stakeholders and Mexico…For the next two months, until Aug. 15, the Interior Department and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will accept comments from the public on how the existing rules should be changed to “provide greater stability to water users and the public throughout the Colorado River Basin.”

Map credit: AGU

Tribal voices at the #ColoradoRiver table — @BigPivots #COriver #aridification

Lorelei Cloud. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

Native Americans were not invited to craft the Colorado River Compact in 1922. Now they are at the table — and insist they must be part of solutions. Big Pivots

Voices of Native Americans, long shunted to the side room, if acknowledged at all, are being heard more clearly in Colorado River discussions, as reflected in two recent water conferences in Colorado.

At the first, a drought summit held in Denver, a panel that was devoted to the worsening imbalance between water supplies and demands included Lorelei Cloud, the vice chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. Her presence was an overt acknowledgement by conference organizers that the Ute tribe, if a part of Colorado, is also a sovereign. That’s something new.

The conference was sponsored by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s preeminent water policy agency. Cloud recently became a board member, representing southwestern Colorado. She’s the first Ute ever on the board.

Cloud lauded Colorado for being ahead of many other states in including native voices. “We’re making strides,” she said but added that work remains.

The next week, she was on a stage in Boulder, at the Getches-Wilkinson Center’s annual conference about the Colorado River. Thirteen of the 30 federally recognized tribes that hold water rights in the Colorado River Basin were present.

Their rights stem from a 1908 Supreme Court decision involving tribal lands in Montana. The high court agreed that when the U.S. government created reservations and expected tribes to live there, water sufficient to the presumed agrarian ways was part of the deal.

This decision, called the Winters Doctrine, has enormous implications for the shrinking Colorado River. Tribes collectively hold 25% to even 30% of the water rights in basin. Not all claims have been adjudicated. Most tribal rights predate others. The Southern Ute rights, for example, date to 1868.

The Compact’s Signers. Photo via InkStain

All predate the Colorado River Compact. Tribes were not invited to Santa Fe in 1922 to apportion the river’s waters among the seven basin states, though the compact does acknowledge federal obligations.

Now, with the Colorado River delivering an average 12.5 million acre-feet, far less than the 20-plus assumed by those who crafted the compact, with flows expected to decline further, we have hard decisions to make. Tribal voices are being integrated into the discussions. Not fast enough for some, but very different than just a few years ago, when the federal government merely “consulted” tribes in the 2019 drought plan. The states were fully engaged.

“We need to be at the table, not just at a side table,” said one tribal representative at the Boulder conference.

Some tribes have been amenable to leasing their rights to cities and others. But will tribes with a few thousand members exert as much influence as California with its giant farms and its huge cities? California maintains that its senior rights be respected in any agreements. Still unclear is what hewing to that principle means when it comes to tribes with their even more senior rights.

From the 2018 Tribal Water Study, this graphic shows the location of the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Map credit: USBR

Also unclear is the practicality of fully integrating the 30 tribes, each with unique circumstances and perspectives, in discussions with the seven basin states and federal government about how to address the sharp limitations imposed by the river. What has changed is broad recognition that tribal voices must better be included. Through the Water and Tribes Initiative, the tribes themselves have insisted upon being heard.

Residual anger at being shunted aside remains. Also ample is a spirit of cooperation. Many representatives suggested their tribes offer creativity and innovations in the community of 40 million Colorado River water users that extends from the farms of northeastern Colorado to the metropolises of Southern California.

Stephen Roe Lewis, the governor of the Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix, pointed out that his tribe has undertaken the largest integration of solar panels over water canals in North American, a practice called aquavoltaics.

The Gila River Indian Community, located south of Phoenix, has worked with Arizona collaboratively on projects. Top: Lorelei Cloud, vice chairman of the Ute Mountain Indian Tribe and a director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, at the entrance to the Ute exhibit at History Colordo in downtown Denver. Photos/Allen Best

Others suggested they offered perspective. The Hopi have been in Arizona for more than 2,000 years. They’ve experienced drought before, said tribal member Dale Sinquah. “Our ceremonies and prayers revolve around water,” he said. “That is what Hopi can contribute, along with dialogue.”

Native Americans often talk of water as being sacred, but that does not mean roped-off, kept in closets. The Native understanding is different than the legalistic framework most of us use. They see water as something to be used, yes, but not in the same lens as most of us, who view it more narrowly as a commodity. What that means in practice is hard to tease out.

Peter Ortego, a non-native attorney representing the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe of Colorado, said he found it odd the session had not started with a prayer. “Maybe we should ask, ‘What should we do day to day to respect the spirituality of water?’”

He’s got a point. I’ve never asked that question, but I am very curious about the answer.

Map credit: AGU

Interior Department Initiates Process to Develop Future Guidelines and Strategies for Protecting the #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Lake Powell. Photo credit: USBR

Click the link to read the release on the Department of Interior website:

WASHINGTON — The Department of the Interior today [June 15, 2023] announced that it is initiating the formal process to develop future operating guidelines and strategies to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River. The new guidelines will replace the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which are set to expire at the end of 2026.

The robust and transparent public process will gather feedback for the next set of operating guidelines, including new strategies that take into account the current and projected hydrology of the Colorado River Basin. The Basin is currently facing an historic drought, driven by climate change, that is increasing the likelihood of warming temperatures and continued low-runoff conditions, and therefore reduced water availability, across the region.

“The Biden-Harris administration has held strong to its commitment to work with states, Tribes and communities throughout the West to find consensus solutions in the face of climate change and sustained drought. Those same partnerships are fundamental to our ongoing work to ensure the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River Basin into the future,” said Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau. “As we look toward the next several years across the Basin, the new set of operating guidelines for Lake Powell and Lake Mead will be developed collaboratively based on the best-available science.”

“Developing new operating guidelines for Lake Powell and Lake Mead is a monumentally important task and must begin now to allow for a thorough, inclusive and science-based decision-making process to be completed before the current agreements expire in 2026,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “The Bureau of Reclamation is committed to ensuring we have the tools and strategies in place to help guide the next era of the Colorado River Basin, especially in the face of continued drought conditions.”

The process announced today is separate from the recently announced efforts to protect the Colorado River Basin through the end of 2026. The Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to revise the December 2007 Record of Decision will set interim guidelines through the end of 2026; the process announced today will develop guidelines for when the current interim guidelines expire.

The Notice of Intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement asks the public to consider the past 15 years of operating experience since adoption of the 2007 Interim Guidelines, as well as how the best-available science should inform future operational guidelines and strategies that can be sufficiently robust and adaptive to withstand a broad range of hydrological conditions. The NOI also asks the public to consider how and whether the purpose and elements of the 2007 Interim Guidelines should be retained, modified, or eliminated to provide greater stability to water users and the public throughout the Colorado River Basin. The NOI will be available for public comment until August 15, 2023.

While the post-2026 process would only determine domestic operations, the Biden-Harris administration is committed to continued collaboration with the Republic of Mexico. It is anticipated that the International Boundary and Water Commission will facilitate consultations between the United States and Mexico, with the goal of continuing the Binational Cooperative Process under the 1944 Water Treaty.

President Biden’s Investing in America agenda represents the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation’s history and is providing pivotal resources to enhance the resilience of the West to drought and climate change, including to protect the short- and long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is investing $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety. The Inflation Reduction Act is investing an additional $4.6 billion to address the historic drought.

To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year once these projects are complete:

Map credit: AGU

A lot is still unknown heading into high-stakes negotiations on the future of the #ColoradoRiver — #Colorado Public Radio #COriver #aridifcation

Bluff UT – aerial with San Juan River and Comb Ridge.

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Public Radio website (Rachel Estabrook). Here’s an excerpt:

Representatives from more than a dozen Indigenous tribes spoke at a CU Boulder law conference last week about their interests in the Colorado River from each of their perspectives.  Many of the prominent state and federal officials who manage the water attended the conference. But as they and other water authorities prepare to negotiate the river’s future, it’s unclear how tribes will participate, to what degree tribes will be treated as equal sovereigns, and how their desire to use all the water they legally have rights to will be considered. It’s also unclear whether negotiators will aim for a way to make the long-term reductions in water usage that a decades-long megadrought has made necessary or whether they will propose more short-term changes. 

The gathering happened at a critical time: Collectively, Colorado River users have to figure out how to live with significantly less water going forward, and the federal government is forcing states to come to an agreement…

The group of tribal representatives and state water officials, along with academics who study the river, used the two-day conference for discussions about how to make their collective use of the river more sustainable over the long term…The tribes have a shared history of using the river and its tributaries over thousands of years and migrating based on water availability. In the century since the river has been dammed and diverted across seven states, each tribe has a different story about how their water rights have been denied and what they seek to change in the river’s management going forward…

Some river scholars and even people with roles in the negotiations are unclear about what’s possible as they determine longer-term allocations of the water…A lot is at stake for tribes, and each circumstance is unique…For example, Hopi Tribe council member Dale Sinquah said his people still need to have their water rights settled. Southern Ute Tribal Council Vice Chair Lorelei Cloud said the tribe wants to use water they have legal rights to in southwestern Colorado, but they don’t have the infrastructure. She said about 1,000 tribal members still have to manually haul water to their homes, and the tribe hasn’t been able to develop farmland…Crystal Tulley-Cordova from the Navajo Nation said her tribe couldn’t rely on groundwater because of abandoned uranium mines on their land. Dwight Lomayesva, vice chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes on the border of California and Arizona, said his people would like to upgrade their farming and water infrastructure to make it more efficient, but the federal government still owns it. “The last major change in our irrigation infrastructure was made in 1942, when the United States government built some canals for the Japanese who were interned on our reservation,” he said. Each needs to negotiate for themselves individually.

“To think that there’s an ‘Indian solution,’ really dishonors that individuality and the uniqueness of each one of those tribes,” said Daryl Vigil, a Jicarilla Apache water leader who used to direct a tribal partnership in the Colorado River basin.

From the 2018 Tribal Water Study, this graphic shows the location of the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Map credit: USBR

Three big ideas to rescue the #ColoradoRiver, but are states and #water users ready for them? — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River in McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, near Grand Junction, Colorado, on April 26, 2019. Photo by Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

To save the Colorado River, its water users must look at radical new options, including a hard stop on new diversions, dams and reservoirs across the seven-state river basin, managing lakes Powell and Mead as one entity, and paying millions to farmers who agree to permanently switch to water saving crops and to change irrigation practices.

Those were among suggestions experts offered at a University of Colorado conference focused on the river June 8 and June 9 presented by the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment and the Colorado River Basin’s Water & Tribes Initiative.

Mark Squillace, a University of Colorado law professor who specializes in water law acknowledged that the ideas, such as banning nearly all new development of water on the river, weren’t likely to be popular among established water users.

“But we can’t just keep appropriating water,” he said. Already heavily overused,  the river’s dwindling supplies must still be reallocated to set aside water for the 30 Native American tribes whose reservations are located within the basin. Several of them have been waiting more than a century to win legal access to water promised to them by the federal government.

Pushed to the brink by a 22-plus year drought, overuse and shrinking flows caused by climate change, the river’s dwindling supplies prompted the federal government last summer to order the seven states to permanently reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet annually.

The call to stop water development on the Colorado River is being heard more often due to the crisis, but it is a tough sell, especially in states, such as Colorado, that have not developed all the water to which they are legally entitled.

The basin is divided into two segments, with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming comprising the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada making up the Lower Basin.

The river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell in the Upper Basin and Lake Mead in the Lower Basin, have long been managed separately with different rules, including the time periods in which water is measured, a critical component of forecasting supplies. But experts say that approach isn’t working and is making it more difficult to rebalance the system.

Map credit: AGU

“Why not do things far more simply,” said Brad Udall, a senior scientist and climate expert at Colorado State University. “Let’s give up the game on Upper Basin and Lower Basin. It just seems stupid. The old system is overly complex. It allows people to game the system.”

Udall was referring, in part, to a set of operating rules adopted in 2007, known as the Interim Operating Guidelines, that were intended to better coordinate operations between the two reservoirs, but which some now believe exacerbated the river’s problems.

This year, thanks to abundant mountain snows and a cool, rainy spring, the river is enjoying a bit of a reprieve. But critical negotiations on how to manage it in the future are set to begin this year, with painful decisions facing the seven states, the tribes and Mexico.

Lessening some of that pain is hundreds of millions of dollars in new federal funding dedicated to helping the basin reduce water use and find more sustainable ways to support critical industries, including agriculture, which uses roughly 80% of the river’s supplies.

But agricultural water use is critical to feeding the nation, and finding ways to reduce it without crippling rural farm economies and threatening the food supply is a major challenge.

To that end, Squillace and others say simple steps will deliver big results. Take alfalfa hay production. Most alfalfa growers irrigate their fields all summer, harvesting the crop multiple times over the course of a growing season. Eliminating one of those harvests late in the growing season could save as much as 845,000 acre-feet of water in the Lower Basin states each year. That alone would cover nearly one-quarter of the water use experts say is needed to help the river recover and sustain itself in an era of dwindling flows.

Also high on the list of important steps to better balance the river is to use most of the tens of million in federal funding to pay for permanent reductions water use.

“I would hate to see us waste our money on temporary things when we know we have a permanent problem,” Squillace said.

Colorado’s U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper, who made a brief video appearance at the conference, said he and other senate colleagues did not want to interfere in state-level talks.

“None of the senators want to meddle in state efforts to come to an agreement,” Hickenlooper said, “But we have to make sure that money is spent wisely, and we also have to look at lasting solutions … we recognize that a lot of traditional landscapes and lifestyles are dependent on us finding the right solutions.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at or @jerd_smith.

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Trustafarians on the #ColoradoRiver: In #Denver, before a friendly crowd, a scathing description of the upper basin vs. the lower basin. Guess who was compared to ski town trustafarians? — @BigPivots #COriver #aridification

L to R: Becky Mitchell, Chuck Cullom, Lorelei Cloud and Amy Ostdiek. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

Chuck Cullom was speaking before a friendly audience on June 1 when he shared his perspective on the messy story in the Colorado River Basin.

“Is the press here?” he asked early in his remarks, surely knowing that the event, the Colorado Drought Summit, was being taped for later posting on the website of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the sponsor of the two-day meeting. “Is anybody here from a ski town?”

Since 2021, Cullom has directed the Upper Colorado River Commission, which represents Colorado and three other upper-basin states of Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico. This is distinct from the lower basin, which consists of Arizona, California and Nevada.

The bifurcation, primarily a legal one but a hydrologic one, too, was created by the Colorado River Compact in 1922. The division is marked by Lee Ferry, just below what is now Glen Canyon Dam and the launch point for boaters rafting the Grand Canyon. Most of the water in the Colorado River Basin comes from upstream, especially from snow and especially in Colorado.

For the 25 years prior to his current position, Cullom was in the lower basin, most immediately before at the Central Arizona Project. That giant straw, the last major one stuck into the Colorado River, delivers water to Phoenix, Tucson, and other cities as well as some agriculture users in Arizona. It’s also worth noting that there has always been friction between Arizona and California.

Now, from his base in the greater Salt Lake City area, he’s just across the hill from Park City, one of the top mountain resorts.

“So we have what are referred to as the trustafarians, which is a tribe of people who live off their trust funds,” he said. “Trustafarians tend to drive something between a new Subaru and a Range Rover, but with the latest kit bolted atop. I don’t know if they ever take it off, but they do have skis and mountains bikes and stuff—and they expect their paycheck every month from daddy or whomever. And they are insufferable.”

“You better be going someplace with this,” quipped another panelist, Becky Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, known in water circles by CWCB. She is also Colorado’s voice on Colorado River affairs.

Mitchell had just wrapped up a critique of the recently announced agreement in which the federal government is to give lower-basin states $1.2 billion to curtail about 10% of their withdrawals from the Colorado River during the next three years. During that time, at least in theory, the basin states will have figured out how to solve their bad-math problem. During the 21st century, they’ve been withdrawing more water than the river has delivered. The two basins – upper and lower – do not share equal responsibility. The lower-basin has been drafting on the water banked during wetter times.

Like ski town trustafarians, Cullom explained, the lower-basin has a sense of entitlement. Trustafarians don’t have to get a job when the money runs out, and the lower-basin states for most of the last century have never had to live within the limitations of natural runoff.

Upstream of the desert empires lies Hoover Dam and, above that, Glen Canyon Dam – plus a lot of other much smaller dams and reservoirs, about 50 million acre-feet in total capacity, which provide assurances that the water will be available, no matter what is happening in the headwaters. But what has been happening most years in the 21st century has been drought and its longer-term and less reversible component, aridification.

On May 17, Rabbit Ears Pass still had plentiful snow for Muddy Creek, a tributary to the Colorado, and for the Yampa River tributaries. Photo/Allen Best

Mitchell, who was first in the batting order in the program, has never been one to mince words. She seemed particularly animated as she described being in Phoenix the previous day to present the upper-basin’s perspective. The majority of the day was devoted to sharing “their concerns over security and certainty that they felt they were entitled to,” she said.

One can wonder how her message may have been delivered on the road as opposed to a home-court crowd.

“When we talk about security and certainty, the way that water is being used in the lower basin is damaging all of our security and certainty, not just their own.”

As did Cullom, Mitchell described a system that has shielded the lower-basin states from the hydrologic realities.

A field of produce destined for grocery stores is irrigated near Yuma, Ariz., a few days before Christmas 2015. Photo/Allen Best – See more at:

Colorado and other upper-basin states must largely live within the natural water budget, what falls from the sky. There are many dams and reservoirs, but even the largest are almost tiny in their capacities compared to the behemoths of Powell and Mead. Having those giant reservoirs above them allows California and Arizona to be certain that the water will be there for their cities and crops, be it lettuce in winter, or alfalfa and almond groves in summer. Agriculture, particularly in the Imperial Valley of California and the Yuma area of Arizona, has the most secure water systems.

In a sense, Mead and Powell represent savings accounts. Now, as all of the nation understands, the result of new and devoted national media interest, those bank accounts have verged on functional depletion. Going into this winter, the two reservoirs were 26% and 23% full. There was legitimate worry that, given just another dry winter, hydroelectric production at Glen Canyon would cease and, with another dry winter or two, Powell might drop to levels such that it could not allow water to go downstream, a level called dead pool.

Graphic credit: Becky Mitchell/CWCB

The marvel in all this is that California, especially, and to a lesser extent Arizona, have not fundamentally changed anything in the last 20 years. According to Cullom, the lower basin states have been consuming about 10 million acre-feet. This compares to about 3.5 to 3.75 million acre-feet by the upper-basin states.

The Colorado River Compact stipulates equal apportionment between the two basins of 7.5 million acre-feet on a rolling 10-year average.

Almost everybody has heard talk about whether the Colorado River Compact needs to be renegotiated, said Mitchell. It does not, she declared. Instead, it needs to be honored.

“The foundational principle of that compact is equity. Sit with that for a little bit,” she said.

“While these quantities are distracting and we know that the river is suppling less than it did a 100 years ago, that doesn’t take away from the foundation principles of this compact. With that being said, I believe that the compact is flexible enough to adapt to these conditions. We, as humans, are flexible enough to include other voices in these conversations,” added Mitchell, a reference to Lorelei Cloud, a representative of the Southern Utes who was also on the Colorado River panel at the conference.

Native Americas, if almost completely ignored when the waters of the Colorado River were being apportioned, in fact have the most senior of rights as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1908 case that yielded the Winters Doctrine. Those rights in the Colorado River Basin are estimated to be 20% to 25% of the river’s total flows. Tribes in Colorado and other upper-basin states have had their allocations determined, but the work remains incomplete in the lower basin.

Mitchell and Cullom also described efforts by upper basin states, if not always successful, to begin pruning water use in anticipation of possibly hotter, drier times ahead. Lower basin states have made some adjustments, but the question is whether they are remotely close to what is needed.

“When we saw the flags of a crisis coming, there was a choice by some to not make changes that are going to be painful,” said Mitchell, alluding to the lower basin.

Upper-basin states, she went on to explain, did make choices. In her description, users in upper-basin states did suffer, pointing to the divergent numbers of the upper-basin and the lower basin. in a chart on the screen behind her. (See above).

“These numbers tell the story of how change has to happen. And so when people get tired of us sharing the numbers, we’re going to share them some more.”

Cullom made a similar point. “It’s a threshold difference when you live downstream of 50-plus million acre-feet of storage. Your concerns about your year-over-year precipitation and runoff in operations are pretty marginal. It’s very, very different up here. Last summer, fully one-third of Wyoming’s users on the Green (a tributary to the Colorado) were shut off, regulated off.”

That, he added, is not something understood in the lower basin. “It means you are out of priority.”

It means that you are out of priority that day, that week, that month. And the state engineer, who in Wyoming is a law-enforcement official, comes and shuts you off. That is not a thing in the lower basin. But in August and September (of 2022, fully one-third of growers in the Green were curtailed. Ninety percent of the Ute Mountain Ute water was curtailed, their agricultural productivity was reduced because of hydrology.”

There’s another difference,  he went on to say: the upper basin has tens of thousands of individual water users and “turnouts,” places where water is diverted. In the lower basin, there are probably 30 main-stem turnouts of which fewer than 10 really matter.

The upper basin, he said, is “small, messy and complicated. The lower basin is just a corporate machine of giant turnouts.”

Water levels in Lake Powell have been rising rapidly this year, but in May 2022 there was a very real risk that levels would drop too low for hydroelectric generation. Photo/Allen Best

A bit of history: The reservoirs entered the 20th century close to full. The 1990s had been good snow years and the upper basin states had not developed their full allocation of 7.5 million acre-feet. California famously had been allocated 4.4 but was using about 5.5

Then came the lean years, worst of all 2002. The river carried only 4.5 million acre-feet of water. Attorneys who framed the Colorado River Compact had assumed 20 million acre-feet of water on average. The thin “bathtub rings” on the sides of the reservoirs representing high marks widened considerably—and then widened more in subsequent years.

The first response was the Interim Guidelines of 2007. Then came other very small belt-tightening measures. California, for example, cut back to its legal entitlement.

By 2015, though, it had become clear that more would be needed. A modestly good water year allowed the lower-basin states to postpone any serious talk. Then came a bad year—and finally there was action. The result was the 2019 drought contingency plan.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter:

At the time, Brad Udall, who has family roots in Arizona but a lifetime mostly in Colorado, told me that he believed that 2019 agreement that was broadly heralded was not close to being enough. “I hope I’m wrong,” he said.

He wasn’t.

More lean years followed, the reservoirs shrank, and the small measures weren’t near enough.

In their remarks at the Drought Summit in Denver on June 1, Mitchell and Cullom mentioned several of those efforts in the upper basin, with Mitchell describing one as “clumsy.” Cullom said something similar, noting the call for accelerated action as not without risk. “Part of the challenge with picking up the pace is you stub your toe,” he said, alluding to mistakes made in the system conservation pilot program.

The Yampa River emerging from Cross Mountain Canyon in northwest Colorado had water in October 2020, but only the second “call” ever was issued on the river that year. Photo/Allen Best

Finally, in August 2021, the Colorado River story became national in a way that it had not been before. “In a First, U.S. Declares Shortage on Colorado River, Forcing Water Cuts,” announced the New York Times.

That cut off some farmers in Arizona. More  reduction was needed, though.

On June 14, 2022, Camille Calimlim Touton, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, which is sort of the task-master on the Colorado River because of its role in regulating the dams, told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that between 2 and 4 million acre-feet of additional conservation was needed just to protect reservoir levels. She gave the basin states 60 days to come up with a plan.

To compare, the entire state of Colorado uses about 2.2 million acre-feet from the river each year.

“I wasn’t surprised by the two-million acre-feet,” recounted Mitchell last week. “It wasn’t rocket science. It was addition and subtraction. It’s not even multiplication and division. It didn’t  work. There was an overuse that was not sustainable.”

That deadline from the Bureau of Reclamation was missed, as was an extension.

Finally, in late January, something came out, if it also fell short. California wasn’t on board.

“Cut the crap,” Udall was quoted as saying in a Denver Post story in January.

Finally in late May, a new agreement was announced, getting front page attention from New York and Washington DC to Los Angeles (and, of course, in Denver).

Center-pivot sprinklers on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation in southwestern Colorado were mostly sitting idle in May 2022 after another low-snow and warm year in the San Juan Mountains. Photo/Allen Best

“We’ve received a page and a half of bullet points saying what the lower-basin intends to do. We don’t know how they’ll do it. We don’t know where the water will come from (among existing uses). We don’t know if it will be binding and enforceable,” said Mitchell.

She said Colorado and other upper basin states are waiting to see a revised draft supplement environmental impact statement.

Mitchell was unsparing. “I think it’s also important to recognize that we don’t get paid for the conservation that happens in the upper-basin states, because it’s in response to hydrology,” she said.

There is yet another bone of contention, one that all but Colorado River wonks will have a hard time understanding. That is who takes responsibility for evaporation from the reservoirs as well as transmission loss.

Hydrologists estimate a million acre-feet of evaporation occurs on Lake Mead – but in the accounting of the lower-basin states, he said, it doesn’t exist.

“In the lower basin,” said Cullom, “they, uh, somehow , uh, there’s an atmospheric thing that prevents evaporation from being considered. Apparently physics doesn’t work (the same) everywhere.”

By that point, Cullom had left his metaphor for ski town trustafarians alone. Do you think he uses that when he speaks in Las Vegas, Phoenix or Needles?

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at or 720.415.9308.

Map credit: AGU

Ahead of new #ColoradoRiver talks, governments and tribes weigh in on the future — KUNC #COriver #aridification #ActOnClimate

USBR Commissioner Touton giving a diplomatic speech at Getches-Wilkinson/Water and Tribes Initiative conference, outlining the ongoing federal spending and the upcoming SEIS revisions. One big upshot from her: There’s no reason to believe this winter wasn’t a “one-off.” Photo credit: Kyle Roerink via Twitter:

Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:

Hot on the heels of a short-term agreement to cut back on Colorado River water use, states are looking ahead to talks about more permanent cuts. The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency which manages the West’s water, announced that those negotiations will formally begin next week with a notice in the Federal Register. The announcement came at an environmental law conference in Boulder, Colorado on Thursday [June 8, 2023], where scientists, state and federal governments, and tribes met at the University of Colorado’s law school…

It still remains unclear how exactly the states plan to arrive at permanent cutbacks that will likely be painful to some of the farms and cities that depend on the river’s water, which flows to tens of millions of people and a multi-billion dollar agriculture industry. Pressed for details, state leaders shared little beyond high-level ideas about the need for water conservation across all seven states that use the Colorado River…Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, emphasized that post-2026 guidelines need to “acknowledge that climate change is real.”


Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, shared new details about the agency’s upcoming plans for water management. The agency has withdrawn its draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement while it reviews the proposal, and plans to arrive at a final plan – or “Record of Decision” – by the end of 2023. Reclamation has so far been tight-lipped with details about negotiations related to the 2026 deadline, but Touton said the agency will “formally advance” the process for those multi-year talks starting the week of June 12. Starting the process next week, she said, will allow the agency to publish a new draft SEIS by the end of 2024…

A panel with representatives from 13 tribes spoke about the evolving role of tribes in water negotiations. Officials and attorneys spoke about their current struggles to maintain steady access to clean water, the historic aggression and exclusion that drove them away from water management and the need for tribes’ input as talks continue.

Hopi tribal members collecting spring water at Yam’taqa –Place of ever-flowing water- (vasey’s paradise) in the Grand Canyon. Photo credit: From the Earth Studio

Although Indigenous people in the Southwest have been using Colorado River water longer than any other group in the region, they have largely been excluded from discussions about how the river is shared. The 30 federally-recognized tribes that use the river control about a quarter of its flow, but most lack the money and infrastructure to use their full allotments. Tribal leaders said their millennia-long history in the region could offer lessons for the future of water management.

Deadpool Diaries: June 1 #ColoradoRiver system status report — John Fleck (InkStain) #COriver #aridification

I hope someone’s keeping track of the re-submergence of the Lake Mead shipwrecks.. Photo credit: John Fleck

Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (John Fleck):

Lake Mead ended May 2023 at elevation 1,054.28 feet above sea level. That’s up five feet in a month, at a time of year when the reservoir is usually dropping, so I guess yay? It’s also up 6 1/2 feet from last year, so I guess yay?

But also worth noting: Mead is down 32 feet from May of 2019, the year the oddly-named “Drought Contingency Plan” was signed. I say “oddly named” because the clear outcome here suggests that our plan for the contingency of drought must have been to drain Lake Mead.


We’re far enough into the year that we can get a pretty good feel for how deeply Lower Basin water users are cutting in response to the current crisis.

Total cuts from the states’ base allocations are 1.079 million acre feet, which is less than the 1.2 million acre feet in Reclamation’s classic “Structural Deficit” calculation, and well below the 1.5 million or more – a 20 percent reduction – that’s been widely discussed as the need in a climate-change altered Colorado River Basin.

Here’s how the cuts are being made in 2023:

  • California: 4.178 million acre feet, a 5 percent reduction from California’s base allocation
  • Arizona: 2.031 million acre feet, a 27 percent reduction from Arizona’s base allocation
  • Nevada: 212,000 acre feet, a 29 percent reduction from Nevada’s base allocation

Those numbers are forecasts for calendar year 2023, based on Reclamation’s June 2 analysis.

We can argue over whether this is “fair” – I’ve made my case here – but the reality is that Arizona and Nevada right now are contributing disproportionately to the cuts needed to save Lake Mead.

A big part of the reductions for 2023 are based on the requirements of the 2007 Interim Guidelines and the Drought Contingency Plan. (Puzzled over why Arizona and Nevada have to make cuts under the ’07/DCP and California doesn’t? California’s power politics in the 1960s gave it higher priority rights.)

In response to the near term crisis on the river, California is taking an additional 5 percent in cuts this year beyond the ’07/DCP requirements, Arizona is taking 6 percent, and Nevada is taking 24 percent.

statebase allocation20232023 reductionpercent cut from base07/DCPCut beyond ’07/DCP


The latest Reclamation 24-month study has Mead ending calendar 2023 at elevation 1,062.32.

Despite this year’s monster snowpack and the gazillions of federal dollars currently chasing water use reductions, that’s still down 28 feet since the end of 2019, the year the DCP was signed.


A big thanks to my supporters – Inkstain will always be free, your help makes it possible.

Map credit: AGU

Every drop of the #ColoradoRiver counts. So what about evaporation? — Popular Science #COriver #aridification

North Lake Powell October 2022. Photo credit: Alexander Heilner via The Water Desk

Click the link to read the article on the Popular Science website (Zayna Syed). Here’s an excerpt:

For more than a hundred years, California, Arizona, and Nevada never accounted for evaporation on the lower basin of the Colorado River as they divided its water between themselves and later with Mexico. Their logic held that as long as there was more water than people used, they could ignore small losses from natural processes. More importantly, it was politically fraught—for decades, the lower basin states have been unable to reach an agreement about how evaporation should be taken into account when sharing the river’s waters. Even as a 23-year-long megadrought sucked moisture out of the already arid region, evaporation stayed off the books with decision making. But now, as water managers scramble to find a solution to a river that’s been overused, mostly for irrigation-heavy crops like livestock feed, they’re forced into a harsh reality: every drop counts, including those that disappear into the air. 

Map credit: AGU

One way to measure how much water dries up in the system each year is by looking at the evaporation losses on Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, located in Nevada and Arizona and Utah and Arizona, respectively. About 1.9 million acre-feet or 13 percent of the water from the reservoirs across the entire river is lost to evaporation each year, says Jack Schmidt, director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University.  In particular, the lower basin (which includes Lakes Mead, Mohave, Havasu, and a few smaller mainstream reservoirs) lost an average of 906,000 acre-feet of water per year to evaporation from 2016 to 2020, according to Schmidt, who cites data from the Bureau of Reclamation. To put that number into context, Nevada can legally use about 300,000 acre-feet per year with the existing deal. “The evaporation of water in the lower basin is equal to three Nevadas. Some people would say that’s a big number,” Schmidt says. Other estimates put the amount of water lost to evaporation even higher at about 1.5 million acre-feet per year, or about five Nevadas. But the overall amount of water that evaporates hasn’t actually changed that much in the past decade. That’s because there’s just less water in the reservoirs, which means there’s less water to lose,” according to Katherine Earp, a hydrologist for the Nevada Water Science Center. At the same time, she adds, as the reservoirs become shallower, the water becomes warmer, and evaporation increases slightly…

Evaporation and transpiration graphic via the USGS

Earp cautions that scientists don’t know how much climate change and evaporation will cut into water held in the lower basin. She says there are two factors that could see direct impacts: the reservoirs’ temperature and depth. “Those are changing as the [lakes along the Colorado River] are changing,” she says. “Most of the evaporation is being done right at the surface with the wind. So that’s not changing. We’ve always had a big hot desert—we will continue to have a big hot desert.”


[Schmidt] outlines two potential solutions: consolidating water from the two major reservoirs into one or pumping some of the water underground. Schmidt did the math behind the first option. In a white paper published in 2016, he examined how much water might be saved if the lower basin states fill Lake Mead and put any remaining water into Lake Powell. “Right now we manage the system to equalize the storage contents in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, and so we sort of maximize the surface area exposed to the sun,” he says. But he found the savings would be minimal, about 50,000 acre-feet of water across the two reservoirs, and says it should be used as a second-tier strategy…In the second option, water from the reservoirs would slowly be cached underground. Arizona and California already store some water underground in recharge basins with the intention to put water back into local aquifers. But there’s a risk of not being able to track and recover all of the water that seeps back into the ground. Still, Schmidt says recharge basins might be a good option if evaporation gets worse. “It’s a technique trusted by water managers,” Schmidt says. “Yes, it’s uncertain. But those uncertainties do not concern people enough that they don’t do it.”

Thoughts on the Lower #ColoradoRiver Basin #Water Deal — Sibley’s Rivers #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):

A short post, to catch up on Colorado River current events. As you probably know, if you haven’t been living in a media-free cave, the three Colorado River states below the canyon region have proposed another alternative plan for saving the River’s reservoir system.

Their proposal, for answering the Interior Department’s call for cuts of at least two million acre-feet (maf) of water annually, is to cut three maf total over the next three years – and they want 1.2 billion dollars from the federal government to execute their plan.

Their plan is basically to pay farmers to voluntarily fallow some of their land. They say they will do half of the cuts – 1.5 maf – in 2024, the remainder over the following two years. Beyond that, there are no firm details at this writing as to how much of the cuts will come from each state, how much they will be paying farmers, et cetera.

Basically, what it looks like on the surface of it, is that the Lower Basin states have countered the Bureau’s four existing scenarios – two from the Bureau of Reclamation, one from California, and one from the other six River states – with an offer to do half of the minimumcuts the Bureau said we need, and they want a billion dollars to do it. What a deal.

If their plan to pay farmers to leave the water in the system sounds familiar, that may be because the four Upper Basin States tried a similar plan this year, the System Conservation Pilot Program, with a fund of $125 million from the ill-named Inflation Reduction Act. Upper Basin farmers did not rush to take up the offer. Only 88 submitted applications to participate, of which around 20 percent were rejected; the remainder will, if things work out as projected, save 39,000 acre-feet at a cost of $16 million. That is a very small piece of two million acre-feet.

The High Line Canal is an irrigation ditch built in the 1880s. Denver Water still uses the canal to deliver irrigation water to customers when conditions allow. Photo credit: Denver Water.

It has been said that farming – especially irrigated farming – is a calling, not an occupation. I have heard farmers and ranchers talk about ‘a working contract with the land,’ and in the Upper Basin at least there seems to be something almost offensive to many farmers about the idea of being paid to not farm some of their land. Ranchers in the Upper Gunnison say it takes up to five years to bring a hayfield back to full productivity after a year of no water (or very little). We’ll see, I guess, if Lower River farmers have the same basic feelings….

A further reason for the low turnout for the Upper Basin’s System Conservation Program might be that Upper Basin farmers believe – correctly enough – that the two million acre-foot ‘structural deficit’ is not their problem and they should not be expected to exercise themselves to help deal with it. A logical enough response when working with a Compact that, as one of the Compact commissioners said, is ‘almost making two rivers out of one in the Colorado River.’ The ‘Glen Canyon Wall’ near Lee Ferry eliminated that ‘almost.’ There has been no indication from the Lower River states that they would be merciful to the Upper River states, should the drought (not ‘caused’ by the Upper States) drive the available flow past Lee Ferry below the Compact allotment; so why should the Upper River states feel empathy for the Lower Basin states?

It was reported in the national media, by the way, that the Upper Basin states have ‘accepted’ the Lower Basin’s proposal. They have not, yet. The four Upper states merely said it was okay for the plan to be evaluated along with the other four proposals in the Bureau’s ‘Supplemental Environmental Impact Study.’

West snowpack basin-filled map April 16, 2023 via the NRCS.

All that noted – the Lower Basin proposal will probably be accepted for a variety of reasons. One reason is that the runoff from a good snowpack is probably going to give temporary relief on the reservoir levels; we should end the water year with both Powell and Mead Reservoirs higher than they were at the beginning of the year (water year is October to October), and that provides a little breathing room. (Keep in mind, though, that the Bureau first issued its major warning and challenge in 2022, saying that big reductions had to happen beginning in 2023. Now, nothing big will happen until 2024. Pray for snow next winter too.)

Another reason the proposal will probably be accepted is because if any of the other four proposals were to be chosen by the Bureau, one or more of the Lower Basin states would sue the government. There might be an element of desperation to both the gambit of promising to try to deliver only half of the requested cuts, and to the threat to sue if asked to deliver the whole 2 maf/year. The Bureau wants the Lower River region that serves a tenth of the national population and produces most of our winter fresh green stuff to cut their water use by almost one third – and do it next year. That’s a big request, maybe an unreasonable request.

Never mind that, had the Bureau and the seven Basin states been living in the real world, they would have taken care of the ‘structural deficit’ decades ago, with a gradual drop in Lower River use, reflecting the growth of use in the Upper River states that was eating into the so-called ‘surplus’ that the Lower Basin had grown to depend on take care of its system losses, and also its half of the allotment to Mexico.

And a final reason why their proposal will probably be accepted? 2024 is a presidential election year, with the current administration on the line, and both Arizona and Nevada are important swing states. ‘Nuff said.

It will come down to whether, next year, the three Lower River states can find enough farmers and cities willing to voluntarily give up a million and a half acre-feet of water next year. Tucson and the Gila River Indians have already made commitments. Meanwhile – pray for snow next winter.

Map credit: AGU

#ColoradoRiver District hosts annual State of the River meeting in #Granby — Sky-Hi News #COriver #aridification

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on the Sky-Hi News website (Kyle McCabe). Here’s an excerpt:

The river district’s Public Relations Director Marielle Cowdin spoke about the district’s work. She highlighted the Colorado River’s crisis, saying that the increased precipitation over the last year will not save the river…Cowdin talked about the water consumption differences between the upper and lower basin states, highlighting that upper basin states make cuts more effectively because they do not have massive reservoirs like Lake Mead or Lake Powell to rely on in drier years. 

“Between 2020 and 2021, the four upper basin states cut our water consumption by 1 million acre-feet — just on our own because the water wasn’t there,” Cowdin said. “Instead of about 4.5 million acre-feet of water use, in that year timeframe, we only used 3.5 (million).”

The lower basin states’ 2020-21 consumption went up 600,000 acre-feet from their average use, Cowdin said. The annual water usage split between the states has been about 60%, or around 8.8 million acre-feet, used by the lower basin versus 30%, or around 4.4 million acre-feet, used by the upper basin, with the remaining water going to Mexico…

The next speaker, Rebecca Mitchell, the Colorado Water Conservation Board director and Colorado’s commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission, was the special guest at the event. She spoke about the Bureau of Reclamation’s Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) and news that broke about it the day of the meeting. Mitchell explained that the bureau’s SEIS came after the lower basin states did not respond to the bureau’s June 2022 announcement that states needed to cut 2-4 million acre-feet. That announcement, she said, was not a surprise to those working on the Colorado River…Differences between the upper and lower basin states came up several times in Mitchell’s talk. She mentioned that the six-state plan, which included all states besides California, acknowledged that the upper states have shortages annually because, unlike the lower states, they do not have huge reservoirs from which to draw…On May 22, the day of the meeting, the bureau announced a pause on the SEIS. Mitchell explained that the lower basin states had presented a plan which included temporary cuts that would amount to 3 million acre-feet from 2024-26 but provided few details on how cuts would be enforced.

“​​Instead of coming up with 2-4 million on an annual basis, they were like, ‘Hey, there’s all this money … we can kick the can a little bit more, and we can use this money and make some temporary changes,” Mitchell said of the lower basin states.

Fear, frustration and fatigue: How a deal to save the #ColoradoRiver was struck — The Washington Post #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River from Navajo Bridge below Lee’s Ferry and Glen Canyon Dam. The proposed Marble Canyon Dam would have been just downstream from here. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on The Washington Post website (Joshua Partlow). Here’s an excerpt:

When a deal to protect the Colorado River’s water supply finally came together after a year of contentious negotiations and a marathon weekend of last-minute haggling by phone and video calls that ran well past midnight, whatever sense of achievement the participants felt seemed outweighed by relief and fatigue…Within hours, Arizona’s negotiator stressed at a news conference that the deal was simply “an agreement to submit a proposal.” The four northern states along the river signed off on further study of the plan but would concede little else. The negotiations wrapped up with a call to immediately start another multi-year round of talks…

The problems with the negotiations arose partly from the size of the task. The amount of water that the administration was asking states to cut from their farms and cities had never been tried…

West snowpack basin-filled map April 2, 2023 via the NRCS.

In the end, a record-breaking deluge of snow and rain this winter, and a mountain of federal dollars, opened a path to consensus and avoided, at least for now, a battle in the courts…

Camille Calimlim Touton being sworn in as Reclamation’s Commissioner by Secretary Deb Haaland.

Negotiating teams kept meeting throughout the winter, as a barrage of atmospheric rivers pummeled the California coast and snows piled up in the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains, promising a big runoff year into reservoirs. On Jan. 26, they gathered at Woolley’s Classic Suites, a hotel near the Denver airport. Interior had asked for proposals on potential cuts by the following week. Six of the states were coalescing around a plan that would assign cuts based on evaporation of the river, an approach that would hit California particularly hard. California negotiators were caught off guard that lawyers and technical staff from the other states had arrived early and were huddling at the hotel, already writing proposals…

That month, Beaudreau held separate conference calls with Upper and Lower Basin officials to clarify the lines of command. Lower Basin officials related that the turmoil and strife was not helpful, and they wanted clear direction from Interior. Beaudreau informed state officials that he would be in charge, along with Touton, in the months ahead. Trujillo, the assistant secretary, was taken off the Colorado River negotiations.

At last, states reach a #ColoradoRiver deal: Pay farmers not to farm — Grist #COriver #aridification

A field of produce destined for grocery stores is irrigated near Yuma, Ariz., a few days before Christmas 2015. Photo/Allen Best – See more at:

Click the link to read the article on the Grist website (Jake Bittle):

After a year of intense negotiations, the states along the Colorado River have reached a deal to solve one of the most complex water crises in U.S. history. The solution to this byzantine conundrum is deceptive in its simplicity: Pay farmers — who collectively use 80 percent of Colorado River deliveries — to give up their water.

Representatives from Arizona, Nevada, and California announced on Monday that they had agreed to reduce their states’ collective water usage by more than 3 million acre-feet over the next three years. That equals around a trillion gallons, or roughly 13 percent of the states’ total water usage. Under the terms of the deal, cities and irrigation districts in these so-called Lower Basin states will receive around $1.2 billion from the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, in exchange for using less water. Most of the reductions are likely to come from farming operations. 

Many had anticipated a more painful resolution to the crisis. Rather than taking mandatory cuts and losing out on billions of dollars from crop sales, irrigators in the Southwest will get millions of dollars to reduce their water usage for just three years — and will cut their usage by less than half of what federal officials demanded last year. 

This rosy outcome is only possible because of a wet winter that blanketed the river basin with snow and stabilized water levels in its two main reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Thanks to the ample runoff, the states could lower their target enough that the federal government could afford to compensate them for almost all of it. 

his deal also resolves a key dispute between Arizona and California, the two largest water users on the river, which have clashed over how to respond to the water shortage. California has argued that Arizona should take the most cuts as the most junior user on the river, while Arizona argued that the cuts should be spread more evenly between all the states. The disagreement caused negotiations to drag out for months, and it’s only thanks to the payout from the federal government that they reached an accord.

These compensated cuts are larger than anything the river states have ever implemented before, but they are temporary, a Band-Aid for a crisis that is not going away any time soon. When the three-year agreement expires in 2026, the states will have to come back to the table again and address the elephant in the room: If water use is growing, and the river’s size is shrinking, some people are going to have to make do with less — not temporarily, but for good. 

“This is a step in the right direction but a temporary solution,” said Dave White, a professor at Arizona State University who studies sustainability policy. “This deal does not address the long-term water sustainability challenges in the region.”

The basic blueprint of the deal is not new. Federal and state agencies in the Colorado River basin have tried to pay farmers to use less water before, but they have had difficulty scaling up these compensation measures. That’s in part because many farmers view the measures as an affront to their industry, even when they’re compensated. When a group of states in the river’s Upper Basin relaunched a dormant conservation program earlier this year, offering farmers money to leave their fields unplanted, just 88 water users across four states ended up participating. 

The other issue is that conserving water is expensive. In order to convince farmers to plant fewer acres, officials need to give them more money per acre-foot of water than they would have made from selling crops on a given field. In California’s Imperial Valley, the “salad bowl” region that grows almost all the nation’s winter vegetables, irrigation officials have paid growers to invest in technology that makes their farms more efficient. But farmers in the valley have balked at the idea of taking money to leave their fields unplanted, especially as vegetable prices have remained high. 

“Water is a valuable asset, and I think people are nervous about parting with it, because it kind of suggests that you don’t really need it after all,” said George Frisvold, an extension specialist at the University of Arizona who studies agricultural policy. “I think there’s real concern that this is voluntary now, but it could come back and bite you.”

The Biden administration has resolved those issues for the moment by offering a very generous price for conservation under the new deal. The compensation arrangement in the new deal works out to about $521 an acre-foot on average — three times the price in the Upper Basin pilot program and almost twice the conservation rate in the Imperial Valley’s program.

Frisvold says these payments will be hard to maintain over the long term.

“We have a bunch of IRA money to pay for this right now,” he told Grist. “But is this going to be an ongoing thing? It’s kind of up in the air.”

Until recently, these experimental conservation programs were just that — experiments. But over the past two years, as a once-in-a-millennium drought has all but emptied out the river’s two main reservoirs, the river states have scrambled to cut their water usage and stop draining the river. It is all but impossible to do that without using less water for agriculture.

The Biden administration kicked off the scramble last summer by delivering an ultimatum to the river states. While testifying before Congress in June, a senior official from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation ordered the states to cut their water consumption by between 2 and 4 million acre-feet, or as much as a third of the river’s normal annual flow. The administration threatened to impose unilateral water cuts if the states couldn’t reach a deal on their own.

The states tangled for months over who should shoulder the burden of reducing water usage. The so-called Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico pointed the finger at Arizona and California, which together consume the majority of the river’s water. Meanwhile, representatives from California insisted that legal precedent shields the Golden State from taking cuts and that Arizona should bear the pain. (It isn’t clear whether the other four states on the river’s Upper Basin will make any corresponding reductions.)

In the end it was a very wet winter rather than a diplomatic breakthrough that helped ease tension between the states. Thanks to historic snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, it’s likely that water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead will stabilize this summer, even if just for a few months. This plentiful runoff has made the worst-case outcomes for the river much less likely and has given the states some breathing room to negotiate smaller cuts.

The new target was just small enough to make voluntary conservation feasible with the money from the Inflation Reduction Act: In the final hours of the debate over the bill last year, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona negotiated a $4 billion tranche of funding for “drought response.” That money will anchor the deal for the next three years, but it’s unclear whether payments will continue after that.

The big question now is what happens at the end of 2026, when the conservation deal will expire and when states and tribes will gather to negotiate the river’s long-term future. At that point, the river’s water users will once again debate the big questions that this deal has allowed them to punt on: How much water use can a shrinking river support? Who should use less water to account for the river’s decline? How can the government make whole the tribal nations that still don’t have their water

Even amid the relief surrounding Monday’s deal, some water officials were already looking ahead. 

“This proposal protects the system in the short term so we can dedicate our energy and resources to a longer-term solution,” said Brenda Burman, the manager of the Central Arizona Project water authority, which delivers water to Phoenix and Tucson, in a press release. “There’s a lot to do and it’s time to focus.”

Map credit: AGU

Deadpool Diaries: The Case for a Shitty Deal — John Fleck (InkStain) #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Lower Basin “structural deficit”, reified. Maybe if Lake Mead rises enough this year the boats will be back underwater and we can stop worrying about deadpool. Photo credit: John Fleck

Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (John Fleck):

I’ve had long conversations this week with smart friends grudgingly supporting of the Lower Basin deal to reduce Colorado River water use over the next few years. Their case for it is simple. Yes, it’s an awful deal in so many ways, but it does have the potential to generate some short term water use reductions and cut the red wire on the ticking time bomb.

SNWA’s John Entsminger made the case this way in an interview Monday with Colton Lochhead at the Las Vegas Review Journal:

My friends making this argument have a crucial credential that I don’t have in making their “sure whatever, it’s terrible but let’s just smile politely and get on with things” argument: they have been or are in the room for negotiations like this. I’m just heckling from the cheap seats.


The best thing about the deal is an apparent commitment (see below for my reasons for italicizing) to deeper reductions in Lower Basin water use than folks down at that end of the system have been willing to agree to in the past. Three million new acre feet of savings above and beyond what has already been agreed to falls well short of the two to four million acre feet Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told us last year would be needed, but with a big snowpack the numbers have changed.


It’s been clear for as long as I’ve been writing seriously about the Colorado River that, if the Upper Basin meets its (contested) Lee Ferry delivery obligation, the Lower Basin needs to cut 1.2 million to 1.5 million acre feet per year. Permanently. Three million acre feet from 2023-26 falls well short of that.

For more than two decades, the Lower Basin has been dithering over how to make the cuts and in the meantime draining the reservoir, essentially building the time bomb that we’re now trying to defuse.

To be clear, enormous progress has been made in the last two decades to build the necessary institutional widgets to bring the system into balance.I wrote a whole book about it! My purpose in writing the book was to build a case for three things:

  • that fears communities often have about the impact of water reductions are misplaced – that we can all get by with less water
  • that successful institutional widgets had been built based on collaboration and sharing that could allow us to adapt
  • that a lot more work was needed to cut far more deeply than we had by the time I handed in the book’s manuscript in December 2015

But in the midst of crisis, and with a ticking bomb, we still haven’t been able to come up with even the bare minimum that we’ve all known for decades that we need in Lower Basin cuts.


What we’ve got at this point documenting the deal is a “term sheet” and a round of celebratory press releases. We have no official breakdown of the makeup of the 3 million acre feet – what’s California’s share, Nevada’s, Arizona’s – how much is Imperial and Metropolitan and Palo Verde, how much is CAP and Yuma. We’ve got individual state reps telling reporters (shout out to my friends in the fourth estate for trying to push down the path of actually breaking down the numbers). But that’s not the same thing as all of us being able to look at it in writing rather than passing around news site links, to be interpreted like fragments of a Dead Sea scroll.

The deal at this point is a pile of stuff shrouded in a tarp that we’re not allowed to peak under. We’ve just gotta trust the Lower Basin folks that they’ll actually come up with the water.

The reason, as one of my smart “been-in-the-room-where-it-happens” friends pointed out, is that the actual detailed reductions will need to go before the boards of a bunch of water agencies. Which hasn’t happened yet. Which means there are umpty reasons for this to spin out of control.

It crucially depends on federal money flowing to water users to compensate them for water they don’t use, but as Janet Wilson pointed out this week in the Desert Sun, we’ve already missed the chance to save some of that water this year because of bureaucratic stuff. That process is not going well.

We all remember the ducking and diving around the celebrated “500 Plus Plan”. Know, those of you who know what’s under the tarp, why those of us who don’t are legitimately nervous about your approach to cutting the red wire.

So spare me the celebratory press releases and puff pieces about politicians breaking roadblocks.


The “seven state letter” is comical, but also revealing.

One imagines federal officials desperate to somehow fly a seven-state flag over the deal, and the last-minute phone calls and emails over the weekend aimed at drafting a letter that says something.

At this point, Upper Basin communities (That’s me! Hi!) are just hostages in the next room, unable to help defuse the bomb and hoping y’all down there can figure out how to cut the right wire.

It’s even worse that y’all in the Lower Basin are demanding that the federal taxpayers kick in a billion dollars or you won’t cut any wire at all.


Oh shit. Was it the red wire we were supposed to cut? The blue one?

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Colorado River states bought time with a 3-year water conservation deal – now they need to think bigger

An irrigation canal moves Colorado River water through farm fields in California’s Imperial Valley. Photo by Sandy Huffaker / AFP via Getty Images

Robert Glennon, University of Arizona

Arizona, California and Nevada have narrowly averted a regional water crisis by agreeing to reduce their use of Colorado River water over the next three years. This deal represents a temporary solution to a long-term crisis. Nonetheless, as a close observer of western water policy, I see it as an important win for the region.

Seven western states – Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California – and Mexico rely on water from the Colorado River for irrigation for 5.5 million acres and drinking water for 40 million people. Their shares are apportioned under a compact negotiated in 1922. We now know, thanks to tree-ring science, that its framers wildly overestimated how much water the river contained on a reliable basis. And climate change is making things worse.

Some recent commentators have argued for revamping the compact. The lawyer in me shudders to think of the utter chaos that would ensue as states, tribes that were left out of the original agreement, and Mexico try to unwind settled expectations and create new ones.

In my view, the agreement announced on May 22, 2023, strongly repudiates the need to revamp the compact. Seven states were able to finesse an agreement that will ultimately result in significant changes to the legal documents collectively known as the Law of the River, without the need to begin again. The next step – a broader, longer-lasting overhaul of the compact – will be even more challenging. The May 2023 deal staves off an immediate water crisis but does not solve long-term problems in the Colorado River Basin.

Overallocated and shrinking

The Colorado River, the lifeblood of the U.S. Southwest, faced the prospect of going dry if its two largest reservoirs – Lakes Mead and Powell – hit dead pool, the level at which no water flows through their dams. Several forces led to this catastrophic prospect.

First, the 1922 Colorado River Compact and other elements of the Law of the River dole out rights to more water than the river provides.

Second, a historic drought that commenced in 2000 has caused water levels in the reservoirs to plummet by 75%.

Third, climate change has reduced the flow in the river by more than 1 million acre-feet. (One acre-foot is the amount of water required to cover an acre of land to a depth of 1 foot – about 325,000 gallons.) Evaporation off the surface of the reservoirs annually claims in excess of an additional 1 million acre-feet. These satellite images show water levels declining from 2020 through 2022 in Lake Mead, located in the Mojave Desert in Arizona and Nevada (move slider to see change).NASA Earth Observatory

This year’s snowpack, historic by any measure, offers a year or two of relief from hitting dead pool. However, one wet year doesn’t alter the trajectory of climate change or the level of reliable flows in the river over time.

State water managers clearly understand the problem and have taken significant but insufficient steps to conserve water. Each state thinks the others should do more to solve the problem. Negotiations, sometimes acrimonious, have stalled.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of the Interior broke this stalemate with a plea and then a demand for the states to do more, faster, to protect the river. Then, in April 2023, the agency released a draft supplemental environmental impact study that offered two alternatives – one more favorable to California, the other to Arizona. The message to states was clear: If you can’t reach a consensus, we’ll act to protect the river. Intense negotiations followed, leading to the May 22 agreement.

Will payments promote long-term conservation?

The new cuts center on California, Nevada and Arizona because they draw their shares of the river mostly from Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The states have agreed to reduce their consumption of Colorado River water by 3 million acre-feet by 2026, which represents about 14% of their combined allocations.

This pact temporarily protects water supplies for cities, farmers and tribes. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation immediately accepted the proposal and committed to pay for steps that are expected to conserve 2.3 million acre-feet of water with money from the Inflation Reduction Act. For example, the Gila River Indian Community will receive $50 million from the Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program in each of the next three years for improvements such as new pipelines.

It’s now up to California, Nevada and Arizona to divvy up the remaining 700,000 acre-feet of cuts. I expect that water reallocation, with water moving from lower-value to higher-value uses, will play a key role. Water marketing – negotiating voluntary sales or leases of water – is a tool to facilitate that transition.

Most of the water involved in the recent agreement will be freed up by one party paying another party to use less – for example, cities paying farmers to conserve water that the cities can then use. That’s the essence of water marketing. The agreement will provide funding to irrigation districts, tribes and water providers, who will then figure out how to generate the savings each organization has committed to deliver.

Negotiation, not litigation

The next steps are for the states to begin discussions about replacing guidelines that currently govern the sharing of Colorado River water, which expire in 2026. These discussions will be more painful because federal funding will expire and cuts will be more severe. Thus far, the Upper Basin states – Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico – have not had to endure significant water use cuts. My hope is that the states will seize this three-year window as an opportunity to develop procedures and identify funding for major water reallocations.

Over the last couple of years, there have been threats to solve these issues in court. But litigation is a lengthy, costly process fraught with uncertainty. The original Arizona v. California suit was filed in 1930, and the Supreme Court did not enter its final decree until 2006.

Many legal arguments that individual basin states could present to a court rest on interpretations of vague or ambiguous Law of the River documents. The river can’t wait for the legal process to adjudicate gnarly, complicated claims made trickier by a century of statutory and case law embellishments. As I see it, negotiation and concessions leading to consensus are the only viable solution going forward.

Robert Glennon, Regents Professor Emeritus and Morris K. Udall Professor of Law & Public Policy Emeritus, University of Arizona

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.